Debunking the myth of compassion fatigue

In recent years, the concept of compassion fatigue has gained significant traction. Most attributed to those in professional caregiving roles, compassion fatigue is used to describe a state of emotional exhaustion and decreased empathy. However, recent research suggests that what we call compassion fatigue might actually be caused by different factors. This mislabeling undermines our capacity for resilience and our dedication to helping others. 

Is compassion tiring? 

Dr. Shane Sinclair, Associate Professor at the University of Calgary, and his team at the Compassion Research Lab1 published some thought-provoking research on the misconceptions surrounding compassion fatigue.2 They found that the depletion of empathy and emotional resources isn’t because compassion is tiring. Instead, it is a manifestation of other factors including stress, burnout and moral distress.3 

Compassion, by its very nature, is not finite. As humans, we are connected by our innate desire to empathize and help others in times of need.4 Yet, the increasing complexity of the world in which we live continues to challenge our ability to express compassion for one another. Personal and professional caregivers also face ongoing systemic constraints such as staffing shortages, tedious paperwork, and limited resources and funding. As a result, we can easily misinterpret our emotional exhaustion as compassion fatigue. 

From empathy to action 

An important distinction to be made is the difference between empathy and compassion. Empathy is about understanding and sharing others’ feelings. Compassion takes empathy further by actively trying to reduce suffering. Exhaustion doesn’t come from empathy itself but from a lack of support and resources to turn empathy into meaningful action. 

Shifting the focus 

Research by Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading expert in this field of self-compassion, found that by prioritizing self-care and setting healthy boundaries, we can build resilience and help protect our mental health.5 While this is good advice, to be effective it needs to be practiced in parallel with systemic solutions that address burnout and distress. The narrative of compassion fatigue often places the blame on individuals and our perceived emotional shortcomings. By reframing the discussion, we can shift the focus towards solutions that address the root causes of distress and promote sustainable practices in caregiving.  

Within professional caregiving settings, organizations and their funders play a pivotal role in mitigating the effects of burnout and distress among their employees.6 By fostering a culture of support and providing adequate training and resources, employers can create environments that promote the flourishing of both caregivers and those they serve.7 

Building a compassionate society 

The myth of compassion fatigue hides the true nature of compassion and overlooks our ability to adapt. By recognizing the systemic factors at play and reframing the conversation about emotional exhaustion, we can cultivate a more compassionate society that supports both the givers and receivers of care. Let us strive to create environments where empathy thrives, and compassion is seen as not a finite resource but a limitless force for positive change. 

Explore our toolkit to learn more about compassion and for tips on how to integrate it into your workplace or classroom.  

4 Rilling, James K. et al. A Neural Basis for Social Cooperation. Neuron, Volume 35, Issue 2, 395 – 405 
5 Neff, K.D., Dahm, K.A. (2015). Self-Compassion: What It Is, What It Does, and How It Relates to Mindfulness. In: Ostafin, B., Robinson, M., Meier, B. (eds) Handbook of Mindfulness and Self-Regulation. Springer, New York, NY.