Compassion Fatigue definition

Compassion fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress (STS), refers to a diminished ability to feel compassion over time. It is a form of habituation common to those working closely with victims of trauma, such as paramedics, and was originally diagnosed in nurses in the 1950s.

Symptoms of compassion fatigue include an decrease ability or inability to experience pleasure (known as anhedonia), anxiety, sleeplessness, hopelessness and pessimism. Professionally, this can manifest as reduced productivity, reduced self-confidence and self-awareness and a decrease in quality standards.

Risk factors that place individuals at a greater propensity to compassion fatigue include those that are particularly self-sacrificing and perfectionists. Stress in the personal life, as well as a lack of support structures to process distressing experiences at work, can also increase susceptibility. Poor communication in organisations where compassion fatigue is a problem can exacerbate the problem; a perception of sensitivity as ‘weak’ among paramedics may stop workers talking and processing their experiences of traumatic events.

Some commentators suggest a degree of compassion fatigue among the general public, fed by consumption of mass media which has become filled with ‘negative’ news and suffering to an extent that the human compassion system cannot keep up with. In this context, compassion fatigue may have some link to mean world syndrome.


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