Difference between Compassion Fatigue and Burnout

Occupational stress and strain can have a variety of effects. Two notable examples are compassion fatigue and burnout, both of which are characterized by adverse psychological and physical effects on a person. This article will help explain the difference between them.


Compassion Fatigue vs Burnout

Compassion fatigue, sometimes called secondary traumatic stress, is an individual’s gradual decline in feelings of compassion towards others because of the individual’s occupation. More specifically, it involves individuals that work directly with victims of physical, psychological, or sexual trauma. It is characterized by a variety of symptoms including hopelessness, depression, and high levels of stress and anxiety. Compassion fatigue has been called the “cost of caring” by some, and can be described in other words as an emotional desensitization one undergoes when faced with trauma on a consistent basis. It is also caused in part by the long and stressful hours many in these occupations have to work. Compassion fatigue is most common in the health care professions, though it is also common among lawyers, social workers, and some military professions. There is no known treatment for compassion fatigue, though psychological self-care methods can prevent adverse effects. These methods are generally meant to mitigate potential stress from job conditions. Individual aspects of compassion fatigue may be treatable, though the condition as a whole is not treatable.

Burnout (or occupation burnout) is a psychological term referring to a general exhaustion and lack of interest or motivation regarding one’s work. When left untended, burnout can cause a physical and emotional collapse. The process by which burnout occurs generally follows a sequence: strong ambition at the beginning of the job, followed by overworking oneself, followed by an isolation from friends and family, followed by adverse negative effects on the personality, culminating in depression, emptiness, and physical/emotional collapse. Two psychologists, Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North, have described this process as occurring in 12 steps. Burnout is not limited to a specific field or occupation, and can occur with any profession. Common fields of work associated with burnout, however, include politics, law, medicine, business, and academia. Similar to compassion fatigue, there is no specific treatment for burnout, though there are ways to prevent and mitigate it.

Comparison chart

Compassion Fatigue Burnout
Found in occupations dealing directly with trauma victims. Can be found in all sorts of occupations.
Occurs from exposure to trauma. Occurs from overworking oneself and occupational stress.

Compassion Fatigue vs Burnout

What is  the difference between compassion fatigue and burnout? The primary difference is their origin. More specifically, compassion fatigue originates from dealing with victims of trauma, and burnout originates from occupational stress and being overworked.

Two alternative names for compassion fatigue are secondary traumatic stress (SRS) and vicarious traumatization. Both of these aptly explain the process through which compassion fatigue occurs. Individuals suffering from compassion fatigue are not the ones directly traumatized, but the ones who are helping trauma victims, and this consistent exposure to trauma victims leads to significant emotional strain upon the individual. The natural compassion most human beings have towards others causes the individual to suffer emotional effects similar to those of the trauma victim. In other words, they suffer vicariously through the victim. This exposure eventually leads to a desensitization, which further leads to the adverse psychological effects defining compassion fatigue, such as depression and hopelessness.

Burnout, on the other hand, does not involve contact with trauma, but occurs after a period of high workload. The 12-step process outlined by psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North is as follows:

  1. A high level of ambition leading the individual to try to “prove themselves.”
  2. Working harder.
  3. Neglecting personal emotional/physical/spiritual needs in pursuit of work.
  4. Awareness by the burnt out person that there is something wrong in their life, but an inability to see how.
  5. Changing personal values and value systems for efficiency at work.
  6. Denial of work-related problems.
  7. Social withdrawal.
  8. Changes in behavior.
  9. Depersonalization; person may see themselves as only useful for work.
  10. Feelings of emptiness.
  11. Depression.
  12. Physical and emotional collapse – burnout.

People working in fields associated with compassion fatigue can suffer burnout and vice versa, but exposure to trauma is not a cause of burnout.