Compassion fatigue is caused by empathy. It is the natural consequence of stress resulting from caring for and helping traumatized or suffering people. It involves a preoccupation with an individual or his or her trauma, and it doesn’t require being present at the stressful event. Simply being exposed to another person’s painful narrative can be enough. Author and researcher Beth Hudnall Stamm defines compassion fatigue as the convergence of primary stress, secondary traumatic stress and cumulative stress in the lives of helping professionals and other care providers.
For those in the helping professions, early recognition and improved self-care both in and out of the workplace are key to creating wellness. Many caregivers focus on others at the expense of their own well-being. It is crucial for them to replenish themselves and commit to having a life outside of work that includes daily nurturing activities. People often understand this concept intellectually, but the knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to taking better care of themselves.
It is important for individuals and their employers to recognize and challenge the psychological obstacles that get in the way of self-care, such as the belief that focusing on personal needs is selfish or indulgent. Enlightened self-interest is quite different from narcissistic preoccupation. Self-care actually increases a caregiver’s capacity to care for others. Self-care, however, is not just about making healthy lifestyle choices — it is about being present with one’s feelings, sensations and intuitive guidance in order to detect what is best in any given moment.