Burnout or Compassion Fatigue: What’s the Difference?
Professional burnout has become absolutely rampant. Most of us wear multiple hats in daily life during the best of times, and world events of the past several years have contributed to a daily standard of high-stress complication for all of us. Prolonged periods without restoration or respite can create big problems “gradually, and then suddenly” — the dangers of getting to such a place are higher for those who work in “people-oriented service roles with an ongoing intense level of personal emotional contact.” Eventually something has to give.
This is particularly the case for those in healthcare, including last responders. The work has always been personally demanding, requiring a felicity for managing emotional matters and psychological extremes. While at no time have those requirements been so pronounced as they have been since the beginning of the pandemic, death care workers are old pros, having mastered such challenges for as long as the need for their services have existed.
It’s a bit of a mixed blessing that deathcare professionals have always had to possess a certain native capacity for attending to living and dead alike, often simultaneously. It’s part of the job, so funeral directors and other deathcare pros are more likely to expect a straight back and “staying power” of themselves all the time… even when adding to an already considerable burden.
When that burden is permitted to reach critical mass, burnout or compassion fatigue (or both) can be the result.
Burnout: Qualified despair
In both cases we’re talking about a legitimate health care conditions, not a precious state of feeling spent, overextended and unappreciated. Three dimensions have been identified in medical literature on the scientific studies attempting to characterize burnout as a syndrome: exhaustion, depersonalization, and inefficacy (a sense of ineffectiveness or inadequacy in performing one’s role). Studies are ongoing, as they often are in the foremost stages of comprehending conditions just beginning to be understood. To date there are several accepted models in use for measuring criteria of burnout:
- The Oldenburg Burnout Inventory concerns itself with the evaluation of only two of the three criteria: exhaustion and disengagement from work.
- Shirom‐Melamed Burnout Measure evaluates the unique traits which belonging to each of the states of “cognitive weariness,” emotional exhaustion, and purely physical fatigue. and cognitive weariness.
- The Copenhagen Burnout Inventory draws comparisons between the characters of physical and psychological exhaustion.
In the context of death care, burnout may look like an inability to connect with families, an internalized sense of no longer making a difference, a feeling of being unappreciated, or a sense of futility of never-ending work obligations.
For some, job performance may be the first to go; for others, it may be self-care and maintenance, including physical self-neglect (nutrition, sleep, hygiene, substance misuse). Once-routine aspects of the job may seem insurmountable. Things fall by the wayside, or between the cracks. There may be a sense of detachment, or failing to find within oneself what one has always drawn upon to complete one’s duties to one’s own standard.
However it manifests, what may be highly individual in expression is universal in overall effect: the sense that things are unsustainable, a kind of of impending doom.
Compassion fatigue is actually a more advanced stage of burnout, and common to caregivers, including health care workers and death care professionals. Compassion fatigue possesses an element of secondary trauma and cumulative stress over time, and consists of the loss of the ability to empathize with others resulting from overexposure to the pain of others. Left unchecked, it can develop into mental illnesses, like PTSD or depression.
Interestingly, it’s a common the tendency of workers in professions where compassion and empathy are part of the job description to continue to work despite their own burnout or compassion fatigue. While depleting, the work is still rewarding – a phenomenon called compassion resilience.
How to cope
Interventions of burnout and compassion fatigue are an important step in alleviating stressors that can bleed over from work into the rest of one’s life.
First and foremost, seeking out a network of support has been proven effective. Mindfulness training can help. There’s no reason to try to go it alone, and any load is easier to carry when the weight is distributed. Communicate with others who can appreciate the struggles you face, and give yourself a break when you feel dangerously overextended. Nothing goes right all the time.
Administrative and social support have also been shown to be effective parts of a plan to dial back the intensity of going too hard, too long in a difficult field. Find – and accept — help when you need it.