Learning & Development

Beating Burnout and Compassion Fatigue in the New Year

This year has continued to bring many of us closer to the pain, suffering and exhaustion of those experiencing burnout and compassion fatigue. There is no doubt that 2021 has been filled with additional challenges. At this point, burnout and compassion fatigue has expanded into many aspects of our lives. 

compassion fatigue

Even if you experienced burnout and compassion fatigue prior to the pandemic, 2021 has pushed the limit on our emotional wellbeing, at times beyond the ability to cope.

Looking at the Numbers

The data is clearly showing that our workforce shares feelings of burnout. A recent Gallup report indicated that 67% of us feel burned out either some or most of the time. In certain industries such as healthcare and education, those numbers are even higher, with more employees expressing stress, decreased emotional health and a lack of support from their colleagues and organizations to talk about their feelings of fatigue.

At an organizational level, workplace stress costs the US economy $500 billion per year. Hogan reports that burned out employees:

  • Are 63% more likely to take a sick day.
  • Are 18% less productive.
  • Have 13% lower confidence in their performance.
  • Are 2.6 times more likely to be actively seeking a different job.
  • Lower productivity rates are costing organizations 34% of their employee’s annual salary (one third of their wages).

The Great Resignation is a wake-up for call for individuals and organizations seeking balance to effectively manage burnout and fatigue. Many employees are leaving professions that they had previously committed their lives to.

As we look at these rising numbers, it’s also important to consider what burnout means. Fears of bringing COVID-19 home to family members, staff shortages, lack of access to safety equipment, dealing with increased death rates and, a lack of recognition by their organizations despite loyalty and personal sacrifices. Does all of this feel familiar?

Feeling Trapped

When we talk about burnout in the workplace, we are referring to an individual’s experience caused by stress, and it results from a variety of factors. 

From a psychological perspective, prolonged exposure to workplace stressors does not always lead to burnout. In extreme cases, health issues, divorce, and suicidal tendencies can all be the indirect result of an individual’s burnout. When we say we are tired, exhausted or burned out, we are at a greater risk of exposing ourselves to these extreme results.

 In many professions, one component of burnout is compassion fatigue. While some data suggests that these two are different, with burnout being something that sets in over time and has a relationship to work, while fatigue is more sudden and results from carrying the pain and suffering of others, what we experience is similar.

Burnout and compassion fatigue share one important factor – the inability to cope. We are in unprecedented times because of the pandemic. Our coping strategies have adjusted countless times over the past two years to meet different levels of stress, strain and even trauma. Strengthening our coping skills can minimize the chances of burnout and fatigue.

When we experience fatigue and burnout, we become trapped. 

Some of the common signs of burnout and fatigue include:

  • Detached, isolated and distant from co-workers, peers and family.
  • Moody, irritable, short-tempered, sarcastic and tearful.
  • No pride in your work and a sense of dread when working with certain people.
  • A lack of empathy for others.
  • Getting too much sleep or too little sleep and physically or emotionally exhausted.
  • Headaches, backaches, stomach upset, muscle tension.
  • Increased alcohol or drug use.
  • Forgetful or distracted with no work-life balance.

Debunking the Myths

It is important to emphasize that the opposite of compassion fatigue or burnout is not a resting state, it is a return to an energized state. Fatigue and burnout resurface when we fail to appreciate the moments of purpose and joy in our lives.

There are a few myths around burnout and compassion fatigue:

Myth #1 – Burnout is an individual’s problem.

  • Many people believe that burnout is about an individual who needs to “figure it out”.  But burnout occurs at different levels and is the fallout from challenges to individuals, teams and organizations.
  • The more supported and connected we feel on a team, the greater the sense of belonging and the less likely it is to experience burnout and fatigue. Team structure offers critical support and leaders should create environments where team burnout is addressed.
  • Organizations are also never off the hook.  In my experience as a consultant over the years, I have observed aspects of organizational environment that contribute to burnout.  Factors include workload, workplace recognition, and belonging.

Myth #2:  Burnout results from disengagement.

  • Surprisingly, the individuals most likely to experience burnout are committed employees and leaders who love their job and are highly engaged. These top performers are the people you are most likely to lose.

Myth #3: People who experience burnout are just less resilient.

  • Research shows a correlation between higher levels of resilience and lower levels of burnout. Organizations and leaders who focus on building emotional intelligence experience higher levels of resilience and a decreasing likelihood of burnout in the future.
  • At one point, people believed resilience was established by “sucking it up”, or “just staying positive”. But resilience looks very different now than it did five years ago, and my guess is that it will continue to shift.

If 2021 has taught us anything, it is that we cannot separate burnout from our emotions, whether they may be fear, anger, shame or guilt. And the path forward requires us to give ourselves a chance to deepen the relationship we have with feelings of joy, passion, pride and fulfillment.

Laurie Cure is the founder and CEO of Innovative Connections, a consulting company based in Colorado, and Virginie Bodescot, Executive Coach of Sense Making Consulting in Paris, France, partnered on this discussion to support leaders and teams to leverage their diversity and multicultural environments to improve team dynamics and performance.