Compassion Fatigue: What It Is and How To Handle It

Sarah Blackstock Sarah Blackstock · 5 min read

Have you found yourself feeling more frustrated in work lately? Learn how to recognise the signs of compassion fatigue!

Compassion Fatigue is real, and it’s not just a risk for people caring for others as nurses or therapists. Although it’s not as well known of an issue in tech as it is in those professions, it’s a real concern for support teams.

Working in customer support requires empathy and caring for the concerns of others every day, often in stressful situations.

While assisting a handful of customers may be easy to manage, the cumulative impact of supporting many people for months straight can take a toll.

Compassion Fatigue can cause anger, sickness, apathy, and more. The longer one feels that way, the easier it is to imagine work feeling hopeless and without purpose. It can be hard to come back from feeling like that.

Whether you’re an individual working in support or a team lead keeping an eye on a group of agents, knowing what Compassion Fatigue is and how to recognize it, is essential to individual well-being as well as organizational success.

what is compassion fatigueWhat is Compassion Fatigue?

According to, Compassion Fatigue “describes a type of stress that results from helping or wanting to help those who are traumatized or under significant emotional duress.” It’s sometimes called “secondary stress reaction,” which seems particularly fitting from the view of working in customer support.

Burnout vs. Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue and burnout are not the same thing, although they do share some overlapping traits. The American Institute of Stress (AIS) explains the difference: “Compassion Fatigue has a more rapid onset while burnout emerges over time.” If recognized early, Compassion Fatigue is less severe with a faster recovery.

Recognizing Compassion Fatigue

Sometimes the people around you are the most likely to notice your compassion fatigue first. If you’ve hit your “empathy quota” for the day, taking your stress home to your family and friends is natural. They might be the first ones to notice you’re a little less understanding than usual.

Common symptoms of Compassion Fatigue, as explained by AIS, include:

  • Increase in emotional intensity
  • Decrease in cognitive ability
  • Impaired behavior and judgment
  • Isolation
  • Low morale
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Loss of meaning and hope
  • Anger toward perpetrators or related events
  • Loss of self-worth
  • Depression

Compassion Fatigue and Burnout can both include emotional exhaustion, reduced sense of personal accomplishment, mental exhaustion, isolation, physical exhaustion, and/or depersonalization.

Take a moment to reflect on your current state. Are you feeling a handful of the symptoms above? Have you found yourself becoming more easily frustrated with work lately? What about your team members? If you work remotely, it can be especially easy to miss if someone is more isolated than usual.

managing compassion fatiguePreventing and Managing Compassion Fatigue

Before Compassion Fatigue strikes, it’s important to watch out for the signs and work to prevent it. To avoid it yourself, make a note of the symptoms and self-assess on a regular basis.

Consider setting a calendar reminder or adding it to your to-do list so it doesn’t slip your mind and you remember to make time to check in with yourself. If you lead a team, check in with your team members regularly too. You can watch for signs among your teammates and help them recognize the issue when they may miss the early warnings.

The ideas below can help you prevent Compassion Fatigue, as well as recover from it.

Talk To Your Teammates

Beyond watching for the signs, there are many things you can do to prevent it from taking hold. You’re surrounded by people who get it. Your teammates experience the same types of interactions, know your customers and the challenges you face, and can be an excellent resource for clearing your head and feeling better. Make time to talk to them about your concerns.

Sometimes a quick rant session between work friends can go a long way in releasing stress and moving forward. Using your dedicated 1:1 time with your manager can also be a good place to vent and make a plan to handle compassion fatigue going forward.

Expand Your Skills

Further, if a certain type of customer–like the extremely needy one or the kind who starts off angry–seems to get to you more than others, practice the skills that will help you better deal with them. If handling an angry user is your weak point and drains your energy faster than any other, look for resources to improve your work and make those interactions go more smoothly.

To get you started, we’ve shared 4 Efficient Tips For Approaching Difficult Customer Conversations.

Set Boundaries

Remember that you can’t be everything to everyone, not even the irritated user who demands it. Do your best, but set boundaries and maintain a good work-life balance. Ask your teammates or your manager for help when you need it.

If you find yourself shutting down instead of reaching out, recognize that and make an effort to connect with a colleague instead.

Practice Self-Care

Another way to help prevent Compassion Fatigue is to develop your self-care routine. Make sure to eat food that makes you feel good, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep. Beyond the basics, self-care needs vary widely by person. So find what makes you feel good and make it a regular part of your life.

Personally, I’m fond of taking a midday break for a yoga session and Yoga with Adriene keeps me stocked with new videos to try. On the weekends, I can be found in my kitchen baking, and more importantly, avoiding my computer. The cake recipes have never failed me and always help me relax and become better prepared to tackle my responsibilities at work after a day away.

Find the things that do that for you. If you need ideas, I’ve compiled a big list to get you started.

Stay Alert

If you’re struggling with early signs of Compassion Fatigue, keep tabs on how you’re feeling, reach out for help. Make a plan to improve your circumstances at work. Remember that the same traits that bring you success, like being motivated or a perfectionist, can also drag you down when things aren’t going well.

If you’re no longer able to find the energy to do the work, or a particularly rough interaction with a customer seems to be blocking you from your best work, remind yourself that it’s temporary and can turn around any time, with the very next user interaction.

moving past compassion fatigueMoving Past Compassion Fatigue

Working in a field requiring empathy and caring for others means Compassion Fatigue will always be a factor in your work life. Be sure to make note of the symptoms and check in with yourself regularly to assess whether you’re suffering from it or not.

Why not set a recurring calendar and make pausing to check in with yourself a regular part of your routine? If you lead a team, check in with your teammates on a regular basis, too. When caught early, the tips above will help you move past it and get back to feeling motivated and satisfied with your work.



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Sarah Blackstock Sarah Blackstock

 Sarah is a freelance writer specializing in technology and customer support for Supported Content, and former Happiness Engineer at Automattic. When she’s not renovating her house in Dallas, you’ll find her baking in her (new) kitchen or reading romance novels. Find her on Instagram: @sarahblackstock

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