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Professionals in the fields of health care, mental health, community and social services, as well as caregivers and first responders, are at a higher risk for compassion fatigue (CF) and vicarious trauma (VT) than the general population.

Whilst the concepts are complmentary there are distinct diferences between the terms Compasion Fatigue, Vicarious Trauma and Burnout.  While Compassion Fatigue (Figley, 1982) refers to the profound emotional and physical erosion that takes place when helpers are unable to refuel and regenerate, the term Vicarious Trauma was coined by Perlman & Saakvitne (1995) to describe the profound shift in world view that occurs in helping professionals when they work with clients who have experienced trauma: helpers notice that their fundamental beliefs about the world are altered and possibly damaged by being repeatedly exposed to traumatic material.

Burnout is a term that has been used since the early 1980s to describe the physical and emotional exhaustion that workers can experience when they have low job satisfaction and feel powerless and overwhelmed at work. However, burnout does not necessarily mean that our view of the world has been damaged, or that we have lost the ability to feel compassion for others.

Some of the signs of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma?

Researchers have discovered that helpers, when they are overtaxed by the nature of their work, begin to show symptoms that are very similar to their traumatized clients: difficulty concentrating, intrusive imagery, feeling discouraged about the world, hopelessness, exhaustion, irritability, high attrition (helpers leaving the field) and negative outcomes (dispirited, cynical workers remaining in the field, boundary violations) many of which affect the workplace and can create a toxic work environment.

Physical Signs of CF and VT

  • Physical exhaustion and fatigue
  • Somatization: emotional stress that translates into physical symptoms, like getting sick more often, headaches, migraines, digestive issues, nausea, aches, tension, pain, etc.
  • Difficulty sleeping or settling at the end of the day (or wanting to sleep too much)
  • Reduced interest in sex due to feeling depleted

Psychological Signs of CF and VT

  • Emotional exhaustion, reduced empathy and low patience
  • More easily angry, irritable, cynical or resentful
  • Shifts in your ability to relate with compassion to clients or loved ones
  • Hypochondria (fear of developing severe physical ailments)
  • Hypervigilance (on guard, anxious, paranoid, irrational fears)
  • Problems in personal relationships outside of work due to reduced compassion
  • Doubting your competence/skill as a helper
  • Feeling helpless towards clients
  • Depression (feeling hopeless about yourself, clients or the future)
  • Suicidal thinking
  • Diminished sense of satisfaction or enjoyment in your career
  • Disruption of your worldview (e.g., difficulty trusting in people or viewing the world as unsafe as a result of hearing your clients’ experiences of trauma)
  • Intrusive imagery (often related to client stories)
  • Hypersensitivity (or insensitivity or numbness) to emotionally charged material
  • Loss or altered sense of self or reality

Behavioural Signs of CV and VT

  • Distancing and isolating yourself from others
  • Not engaging in activities you typically enjoy; low motivation
  • Difficulty making simple decisions or clinical decisions that affect clients
  • Missing work, or dreading or avoiding clients/patients
  • Frequently changing jobs or leaving your field altogether
  • Compromised care towards certain clients (disconnecting, merging/rescuing)
  • Disordered eating or addictions to cope
  • Difficulty separating work and personal life (impaired boundaries)


Burnout may be the consequence of long term stress, but it is different from being under extreme stress.  Long-term stress is exhausting, and can prevent you from taking part in activities that you normally find meaningful. This is burnout. Some of the signs of burnout include:

  • feeling exhausted and unable to perform basic tasks
  • losing motivation in many aspects of your life, including your work and friendships
  • feeling unable to focus or concentrate on tasks
  • feeling empty or lacking in emotion
  • losing your passion and drive
  • experiencing conflict in your relationships with co-workers, friends and family
  • withdrawing emotionally from friends and family.

Essentially, when you've reached the point of burnout, it can feel like you’ve had the life sucked out of you. You no longer feel capable of caring about what’s important to you, to making any effort, or staying motivated.  

Burnout and depression can look very similar.  Both are often characterised by feelings of fatigue and low energy, sleep disturbances, feeling sad and distressed. But unlike burnout, depression is a psychiatric diagnosis with symptoms which have a global impact – not limited to occupational context. Depression is potentially a severely debilitating condition, affecting many areas of a person’s life.