Compassion Fatigue vs. Burnout: Know the Difference, Improve Outcomes

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Compassion fatigue and burnout are both problems that frequently plague helping professions like behavioral health and human services. Employees in these industries spend long hours caring for others, but often struggle to find time for self-care to help them recover from high workloads and emotionally fatiguing job roles. Both compassion fatigue and burnout can lead to issues in employees’ professional and personal lives and contribute to issues such as employee turnover and lost productivity.

As such, it’s crucial for leaders in behavioral health and human services organizations to understand how to identify symptoms of compassion fatigue vs. burnout in order to properly address these issues with their teams. The two conditions often appear quite similar but the causes differ. Find out how to differentiate compassion fatigue vs. burnout and what steps employers can take to help employees avoid experiencing either condition.

What Is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is a form of secondary traumatic stress that typically impacts caregivers, first responders, and healthcare workers. It’s a type of emotional exhaustion that often leads to decreased empathy or compassion, emotional disconnection, and ​​feelings of hopelessness. Compassion fatigue not only impacts the employee’s work, but it also impacts their personal life and overall well-being.

Behavioral health clinicians, social workers, and other health professionals who provide direct care to patients dealing with issues related to grief, depression, abuse, addiction, and trauma are at a high risk of compassion fatigue. This condition can worsen with long work hours, heavy workloads, or working with a patient population that may act out and threaten providers, such as incarcerated persons or those experiencing extreme mental distress.

What Is Burnout?

Compassion fatigue vs burnout: stressed entrepreneur looking at a laptop

Burnout is more of a general exhaustion related to an employee’s work. The World Health Organization defines burnout as ​​a syndrome stemming from chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been properly managed. One key difference between compassion fatigue vs. burnout is that the latter doesn’t necessarily stem from helping others through stress or trauma. It can arise from high workloads, inadequate support from managers and peers, long hours, and other stressors in the work environment.

Burnout is also incredibly common in behavioral health. Before the pandemic, the American Psychological Association estimated that 21-61% of behavioral health workers were experiencing burnout. Today, that number is estimated to be significantly higher. One recent study of a community-based mental health services organization in New York found that 70.6% of clinicians surveyed were experiencing high levels of burnout.

Identifying Compassion Fatigue vs. Burnout

It’s best to catch both compassion fatigue and employee burnout early so that you can provide timely support to the employee before the quality of care starts to significantly decrease or they decide to leave the company. To properly identify compassion fatigue vs. burnout, it’s vital to understand the warning sides of each concern. The symptoms can look similar at first glance, so it’s paramount that behavioral health leaders know what to look for and how to properly differentiate them so the appropriate interventions can be implemented.

Common signs of compassion fatigue include:

  • Feelings of helplessness related to patient suffering
  • Lowered productivity and reduced sense of personal accomplishment related to work
  • Increased irritability, anger, or sadness
  • Feelings of depersonalization
  • Emotional detachment towards patients, family members, and loved ones
  • Decreased ability to handle stressors

Warning signs and symptoms of burnout include:

  • Exhaustion or low energy
  • A negative or cynical outlook toward one’s job
  • Reduced productivity or job performance
  • Emotional disconnection from one’s job

Employees battling compassion fatigue can also experience burnout, but the key difference is in the root cause or origin of the problem. Compassion fatigue stems from vicarious trauma due to helping others. While supporting others through traumatic events and emotionally charged situations, clinicians can become emotionally exhausted and begin to experience their own sense of traumatization. 

Burnout, however, can apply to any job role and any workplace stressor in any industry. Employees who don’t work with patients can still experience burnout due to excessive workloads and poor work-life balance without experiencing the secondary trauma associated with compassion fatigue. 

In behavioral health, burnout can often rise from long hours and high workloads related to short staffing. ContinuumCloud’s 2023 Behavioral Health Industry Trends Report found that 91% of behavioral health organizations have a turnover rate of 20% or higher. High turnover rates paired with increasing demand for services, can lead to employees putting in extra hours or taking on additional work for prolonged periods. If they don’t have adequate recovery time and healthy coping strategies to manage the extra stress, burnout may occur.

Strategies for Minimizing Compassion Fatigue and Burnout

Compassion fatigue vs burnout: patient talking to a doctor

Once you know the signs of compassion fatigue vs. burnout, it’s time to put measures in place to help prevent both of these conditions. Here are some talent management strategies that employers can utilize.

Provide Resources to Help Employees Manage Work-Related Stress

Providing a robust benefits package can help employees take care of their own health while supporting patients, thus minimizing the risk of compassion fatigue and burnout. Some employers also provide access to employee assistance programs (EAPs), mindfulness programs, wellness programs, peer support groups, and other benefits that can help employees manage stress.

It’s imperative that behavioral health organizations not only provide benefits and resources to help employees manage their work stress, but also ensure that employees are fully aware of the resources available to them. For instance, ContinuumCloud’s self-service benefits administration features make it easy for employees to select the benefits that best fit their needs and review their selections throughout the year. The platform also provides self-service tools to help employees view their available PTO and put in time-off requests when they need a day off to recharge.

To limit compassion fatigue, it can also help to provide reminders of the available benefits after employees experience particularly stressful events in the work environment, such as the death of a patient, a period of elevated caseloads, or other stressful situations. Similarly, after periods of overtime or high workloads, it can be helpful to remind employees to take PTO to circumvent burnout. ContinuumCloud’s internal communication tools can help streamline this process.

Check-In With Employees Regularly

Employers need to be proactive in scheduling regular check-ins with employees. Those experiencing burnout or compassion fatigue will often feel helpless or withdrawn and may not reach out for help when they need it. Managers should initiate frequent conversations regarding employee wellness and workloads to identify when their direct reports may be at risk for compassion fatigue or burnout.

The talent management functions included in ContinuumCloud’s HCM make it easy for managers to easily schedule check-ins or send a quick check-in message to team members. Ongoing check-ins not only provide an excellent time to talk with employees about their overall well-being and how they can manage compassion fatigue vs. burnout, but they also serve as a helpful performance management strategy.

Amp Up Employee Recognition and Encourage Compassion Satisfaction

Compassion fatigue vs burnout: women doing the high five

Compassion satisfaction is a term that describes the positive feeling that someone gets from helping others. One way to promote compassion satisfaction is to encourage employees to celebrate their wins. Regularly celebrating employees’ contributions can help them feel greater compassion satisfaction and overall job satisfaction. 

Community-building is another way that behavioral healthcare workers can fight off compassion fatigue. You can bring these two ideas together by implementing a peer-to-peer employee recognition program. 

Healthcare employees are often very busy and entirely focused on patients during their shifts, so it can be easy to forget to compliment a coworker or celebrate their win. That’s why it can help to use a digital tool that encourages peer-to-peer recognition. 

ContinuumCloud’s human capital management software includes an employee recognition feature called “Shout Outs'' that allows employees to provide digital, public recognition of their team member’s achievements. This can help make employee recognition a more frequent occurrence and promote community-building among staff members.

Minimize the Administrative Burden 

Another often overlooked strategy is to create better efficiencies that allow employees to focus on more meaningful work rather than getting bogged down in paperwork and administrative processes. Clinicians have to manage high patient caseloads and emotionally-draining work while also staying on top of documentation and billing. One way to remove some of the admin burden from employees is to automate workflows with tools such as HCM or EHR software. Processes like documentation, scheduling, and billing can be streamlined using these tools to free up more time for patient care (and self-care).

Combat Compassion Fatigue and Burnout With ContinuumCloud

Behavioral health leaders and front-line managers must understand how to identify and address compassion fatigue vs. burnout to improve outcomes for those in helping professions. One resource that can help is a strong unified HCM system. HCM platforms like ContinuumCloud’s can streamline processes such as check-ins, time-off requests, employee recognition, and more to aid employers and employees in the fight against burnout and compassion fatigue.

ContinuumCloud’s HCM software is an all-in-one solution that was designed specifically to meet the needs of behavioral health and human services organizations. Contact us to learn more about how we can help you better support your employee’s well-being so they can better serve your patients.

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