When Compassion and Fatigue Collide

All across social media and the news media, as well as the Atlantic Union Conference Youth and Young Adult ministries prayer line, there have been countless accounts of the fear, anxiety, and overall stress of working at healthcare organizations, especially those where care is provided to COVID-19 patients. During this pandemic, healthcare facil­ities and units with a curative care focus have had to accept comfort care as the order of the day; and hospice-type treatments have become more common because of the high COVID-19-related death rate.

Health care frontline workers stood, and are still stand­ing, at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is in and around caregiving facilities (among other locals), that com­passion and fatigue often collide. This “collision” is common when there is a conscious desire to alleviate the distress of others, and it is referred to as compassion fatigue. It’s about helping the wounded and becoming wounded yourself. It’s about helping the traumatized, and becoming traumatized yourself, or as in the case of the current pandemic, it’s about caring for the infected, and becoming infected yourself. Those who work with or around sickness and trauma often encounter compassion fatigue, which involves the difficulty of being in harm’s way while needing to act with compassion (B. Hudnell Stamm, Treating Compassion Fatigue, 2002).

It follows that this psychological morbidity may often be overlooked until more serious consequences, such as clini­cal depression, anxiety, substance dependence, burnout, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) become evident. In some cases, it’s too late to assist the wounded professional, as in the case of a top hospital emergency department doc­tor and director in Manhattan, New York, who committed suicide in late April 2020, less than two weeks after becom­ing infected with the coronavirus and returning to work.

Depending on the intensity of the caregiving relationship, and their own personal resources, healthcare profession­als and caregivers may find themselves at different levels, or stages, of compassion fatigue. The three major stages of compassion fatigue presented include:

Stage 1: The worker may feel irritated, frustrated, slightly depressed, and apathetic.

Stage 2: As the level of caregiving intensifies, a caregiver may feel trapped and experience loss of sleep, change in eating habits, regressive behaviors, and a strong desire to be alone.

Stage 3: The worker experiences a tremendous amount of pain and anxiety in the caregiving relationship and can’t escape it. This is the most extreme phase of compassion fatigue, which is characterized by physical problems, escape fantasies, and debilitating depression. (Compassion Fatigue: Worn Out From Caring, p. 10).
Regular Self-compassion and Self-care

The coronavirus pandemic has been a marathon expe­rience, and not a walk in the park or a quick sprint. Thus, the onus is on each worker to “feed” him or herself spiritu­ally, mentally, physically, and socially. This food includes moments for personal, closet prayer and meditation upon God and His Word; being grounded in reality and accepting personal limitations; and showing compassion to oneself, as well as time for exercise and physical activity, and casu­al interactions with friends and family. In this sense, each should be intentional about identifying and practicing sus­tainable coping mechanisms.

Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, self-care for young adults, and other healthcare professionals provides an excel­lent compassion-fatigue vaccination.


David McKenzie is the director of the Youth, Young Adult, Pathfinder, and Adventurer ministries in the Atlantic Union Conference.