Caregiver Burnout vs. Compassion Fatigue: What’s the Difference?

Updated

Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

As people live longer, it is not surprising to see more people take on caregiving as part of their everyday life. However, with the uptick in aging adults and caregivers, the growing responsibility of caregiving is giving way to more cases of caregiver burnout and compassion fatigue. The emotional toll adds up.

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Caregiving for someone does not replace other responsibilities but in fact, is an addition to all the other daily tasks someone undertakes. In many cases, caregiving gets added to the growing areas of attention in someone’s life including career, children, spouses, and other relationships.

Recovering from any psychological or emotional problem involves awareness. Without awareness of the problem, it is challenging to take the steps necessary to be a healthier and happier caregiver.

If you’re feeling a form of exhaustion related to your caregiver duties but unsure what it may be, we list the signs and symptoms of caregiver burnout and compassion fatigue below. While you may be looking for professional help to address this issue, recognizing these signs may help you start to feel better about yourself and the person you have been entrusted to care for.

Caregiver Burnout and Compassion Fatigue: Basic Definitions

There are similarities between caregiver burnout and compassion fatigue, and one can lead to the other. Both of these common conditions can adversely affect health and emotional stability. Awareness is the first step to combating and overcoming caregiver burnout and compassion fatigue. If you are experiencing either of these common conditions, consider seeking professional help from a counselor or therapist.

Caregiver burnout defined

In general, caregiver burnout happens over time in response to the unrelenting and increasing caregiver demands and responsibilities. Several demographic and other societal changes have contributed to an increase in family caregiving. One of these is that the growing number of older adults in the U.S. is expected to reach 98 million by 2060.

Older adults are also more likely to have chronic medical conditions that require care. Age is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, both of which have no cure. Combine these changes and increased population, and you may have a recipe for burnout as a caregiver. 

The symptoms of caregiver burnout might be familiar to you, but you may not recognize the signs right away.

  • Exhaustion
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Irritability, anxiety, and depression
  • Worsening health problems or new health problems
  • Feeling resentful
  • Problems in your relationships
  • Giving up leisure and other activities
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
  • Social withdrawal

Caregiver burnout is avoidable, and even if you are in a full state of burnout, you can improve your physical and psychological health. Understanding the factors and behaviors that got you there will help you heal and recover. It is also important to remember that you are not alone. Here are some of the factors that contribute to caregiver burnout.

  • Not asking for help 
  • Not taking breaks 
  • Ignoring self-care
  • Alcohol or drug use to cope
  • Forgetting to eat
  • Not voicing your frustrations
  • Social withdrawals, not seeing friends
  • Feeling like you can’t say no
  • Thinking you are the only one who “knows best”
  • Other areas in your life suffer
    • Career development, family life, relationship with spouse

While being a caregiver can take a lot of energy and dedication, you should not feel like you have given up your life to care for a parent. It can be rewarding in lots of different ways, such as spending time with loved ones and being an advocate for an aging adult. But it can become draining as well, and can feel you leaving like you have not been able to accomplish much. It is important to remember that caregiver burnout is real, but it is reversible.

Compassion fatigue defined

While there may be many emotional aspects to caregiver burnout, compassion fatigue focuses primarily on your emotional response. Compassion fatigue can be defined as a strong emotional response to repeated exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events.

The repeated listening to or being in the presence of the trauma makes you susceptible to compassion fatigue. The emotional component of compassion fatigue is the result of exhaustion, which ultimately results in a loss of empathy for the person. Several personality traits are associated with compassion fatigue, including the following:

  • Being a perfectionist
  • Overly particular or obsessive
  • Low levels of personal support
  • Previous trauma
  • High-stress levels in one’s personal life

As a caregiver, you may ask what conditions could cause this type of fatigue. One of them is Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia. The devastating loss of the person you once knew is frightening and disorienting. Over time, your loved one may become agitated, angry, and paranoid and not recognize you, or may become abusive. If you work in a healthcare field with repeated exposure to people with dementia or other chronic diseases, compassion fatigue is common.

Some other symptoms of compassion fatigue:

  • Feeling numb to another person’s suffering
  • Feelings of hopelessness or powerless
  • Mental and physical fatigue
  • Overwhelming guilt, shame, and self-doubt
  • Not eating well
  • Coping with using alcohol or drugs
  • Nightmares
  • Avoidance or dread
  • Somatic complaints
  • Poor judgment and difficulty concentrating

While compassion fatigue is stressful for the person experiencing it, it can also be dangerous for the person you are caring for. If left untreated, compassion fatigue can lead to abuse of the care recipient. Prioritizing your own mental and physical health is necessary to combat compassion fatigue, and it is easier said than done. These suggestions may provide a head start in helping you find an appropriate coping mechanism.

Recognize that if you are experiencing compassion fatigue, it will adversely affect your ability to be an effective caregiver. Seek out counseling or a support group to help you manage your emotions. Take breaks and pursue activities that bring you joy and contentment.

Incorporate habits of self-care for caregivers, including getting enough sleep, mindfulness meditation, and stress reduction techniques. Be compassionate to yourself by acknowledging your feelings and recognizing that you need help. Reach out to other people for support so that you don’t feel alone and isolated.

If you need to, remove yourself from the caregiving situation and find an appropriate replacement. You might need to consider private caregivers or a respite situation. Accept the fact that you are not the only one responsible for a loved one. Talk to other family members about taking some of the caregiving load off of your shoulders.

Key Differences and Similarities Between Caregiver Burnout and Compassion Fatigue

There are distinct differences between caregiver burnout and compassion fatigue but overlaps as well. You could very well have symptoms of both. Individuals will respond very differently to the same situation, so it is helpful to know what personality characteristics can lead to compassion fatigue. 

1. Compassion fatigue is also called empathy fatigue or secondary traumatic stress disorder

Empathy is feeling the pain of others. Being consumed by someone else’s pain without a break to recover can lead to compassion fatigue. Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder is defined as “a set of observable reactions to working with people who have been traumatized and mirrors the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The main distinction between compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout is that caregivers with burnout may still have empathy and compassion. They are burned out physically and mentally from the unrelenting caregiving tasks.

2. Compassion fatigue happens more quickly

Compassion fatigue happens more quickly and often affects new caregivers. This happens due to feeling overwhelmed and unable to feel empathy towards the person they are caring for. An example is being thrust into a caregiving role for someone who is cognitively or physically debilitated and disabled. You may not have the skills or knowledge to handle the situation.

3. Compassion fatigue can lead to caregiver burnout

Compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout can have many of the same symptoms and causes. Both can be caused by repeated exposure to suffering such as the stress of caregiving and watching a loved one decline steadily. Those who care for loved ones with dementia may feel hopeless and unable to do anything to make the condition better.

Despite extraordinary caregiving efforts, dementia gets worse, which causes extreme distress. The inability to remove oneself from the caregiving situation can lead to levels of stress that result in both compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout.

4. Both compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout have similar symptoms

Although compassion fatigue and burnout might have similar symptoms, the main difference has to do with recovery. A burned-out caregiver may have a brief recovery and can go back with renewed energy and enthusiasm or their caregiving duties. With compassion fatigue, there is no feeling of recovery, even with rest. Similar symptoms of both:

  • Exacerbation of medical conditions
  • Problems with sleep
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of self-care
  • Coping with using alcohol and drugs
  • Irritability
  • Neglect of personal relationships

5. Caregiver burnout may be easier to cope with than compassion fatigue

Caregiver burnout is unpleasant and harmful, but compassion fatigue may be even harder to manage. Caregiver burnout can be an ebbing and flowing condition that responds well to immediate self-care and other coping skills. On the other hand, compassion fatigue may require a complete withdrawal from the caregiving situation. A loss of empathy can’t just be dialed back immediately and if left to progress without help, can become toxic to the caregiver and care receiver. 

The best intervention is often prevention. If you start to recognize compassion fatigue, act immediately to get control of the situation. Check out your responses with someone you trust to give you an objective view of how you are handling things. 

Caregiver Burnout vs. Compassion Fatigue

Caregiving is a hard job. Some days it will seem as though there is no end in sight, but by understanding how burnout and compassion fatigue begins, you can get control. All of the above suggestions imply a central message: take care of yourself. Although you may feel alone, you most definitely are not — as many caregivers have experienced their own unique cases of burnout and compassion fatigue. If you let people know you need them, they will help.


Sources

  1. “Older Adults.” Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. www.healthypeople.gov/2020/topics-objectives/topic/older-adults
  2. “Secondary Traumatic Stress.” Administration for Children and Families. www.acf.hhs.gov/trauma-toolkit/secondary-traumatic-stress 
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