Compassion Fatigue vs Compassion Satisfaction

Author: Michael Emmerich

Published in: Summer 2019 Edition of Ambulance Today Magazine

“When you’re compassionate, you’re not running away from suffering, you’re not feeling overwhelmed by suffering, and you’re not pretending the suffering doesn’t exist. When you are practicing compassion, you can stay present with suffering.”

  • Sara Shairer:

In the emergency first responder profession, where we witness trauma first-hand, it is at times difficult to be fully aware of the impact that “direct trauma” has on us as practitioners and how to differentiate between direct trauma and vicarious trauma. Research suggests that EMS personnel experience many reactions after exposure to a traumatic event. Admitting to being emotionally affected is regarded as difficult as it may lead to being perceived by their peers as not tough enough for the job. The attitude of ‘no one dies on my watch’ is common amongst EMS personnel. This leads to EMS personnel often suppressing their emotions and feelings associated with the reality of their work in order to live up to this image of being strong and resilient.

“Injury mortality rates in South Africa are approximately six times higher than the global average. One of a handful of studies conducted amongst EMS personnel in the Western Cape found higher prevalence of exposure to critical incidents compared to their counterparts in other low-income countries.” 

  • African Journal of Emergency Medicine Volume 5, Issue 1, March 2015

This Quarter we attempt to unpack and understand the lived experiences of compassion fatigue, vicarious/secondary trauma (ST), and burnout.

These three terms are complementary and yet different from one another.

-Compassion Fatigue (CF): Also called “vicarious traumatization” or secondary traumatization (Figley, 1995). The emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events. It differs from burn-out but can co-exist. Compassion Fatigue can occur due to exposure on one case or can be due to a “cumulative” level of trauma. 

The American Institute of Stress –

-Vicarious Trauma (VT): is a process of change resulting from empathetic engagement with trauma survivors. Anyone who engages empathetically with survivors of traumatic incidents, torture, and material relating to their trauma, is potentially affected.

-Burnout: a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy.

The American Institute of Stress –

Despite the differing theories and terminology of the three concepts, each is directly associated with the concept of empathy. There are two key components:cognitive empathy, the ability to take someone’s perspective, and affective empathy, whereby an individual share a similar emotional response to others’ experiences(Smith, 2006).

With empathy holding sway as a common factor in CF, VT and burnout, it would make sense then to conclude that cognitive and affective empathy would impact differently on the life of the practitioner. For example, a professional empathising emotionally may experience more emotional consequences than an individual empathising cognitively. In addition to increased experiences of trauma, increased case load and less clinical experience, it is therefore suggested that the nature of empathetic engagement in work-related scenarios would therefore be an important dimension to consider in understanding the development and intensity of CF as experienced by EMS practitioners.

Conversely, burnout does not necessarily mean that our world views have been damaged or that we have lost the ability to feel compassion for others. Most importantly, burnout can be easily resolved; (but can it be in the current financially driven, dehumanised environment practitioners work in?)Conversely this is not the case for CF and VT.

As one is vicariously exposed to trauma, both directly and indirectly, one begins to exceed one’s resilience (or ability to cope) to these events, and one is then prone to develop CF (or sometimes also referred to as Secondary Distress Syndrome). Once our chronic exposure to trauma exceeds our coping mechanisms, CF then becomes evident. CF has been described as the convergence of secondary traumatic stress (STS) and cumulative burnout (BO); a state of physical and mental exhaustion caused by a depleted ability to cope with one’s everyday environment. This can impact standards of patient care, relationships with colleagues, or lead to more serious mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety or depression.

How do we then best protect vulnerable workers, to prevent not only CF, but also the health and economic consequences related to the ensuing, and more disabling, physical and mental health outcomes. To fully understand CF, we possibly need to move away from theoretical explanations and models and focus on a more relational understanding of professionals lived experience of their own and others’ (patients, peers and family) distress. This would involve a narrower focus on problem solving, via person centred compassionate care. Remember authentic and sustainable self-care begins with you. Understand that the pain and stress you feel are normal displays, resulting from the care giving work you perform on a regular basis.

Examine the positive and negative aspects of one’s work influences, and how it affects one’s professional quality of life. This leads us to a better understanding, whilst helping those who experience trauma and suffering. This can in turn improve our ability to aid them and keep our balance in this process.

Compassion Satisfaction and Compassion Fatigue are two aspects of Professional Quality of Life. They encompass the positive (Compassion Satisfaction) and the negative (Compassion Fatigue) parts of helping others who have experienced suffering. Compassion fatigue breaks into two parts. If working with others’ suffering changes you so deeply in negative ways that your understanding of yourself changes, this is vicarious traumatization. Learning from and understanding vicarious traumatization can lead one to vicarious transformation.

  • Dr. Beth Hudnall Stamm – ProQOL
sessional Quality of Life Model (Stamm, 2012)

An excellent article to read is Transforming Compassion Fatigue into Compassion Satisfaction: Top 12 Self-Care Tips for Helpers, by Françoise Mathieu, M.Ed., CCC– see the link below

In closing;

integrated intervention programmes are needed to assist EMS personnel working in this sustained high-stress environment. The findings can assist health care educators in the design of co-curricular activities intended to help in the development of resilience and the psychological wellbeing of EMS personnel.”

Exposure to daily trauma: The experiences and coping mechanism of Emergency – Llizane Minnie a,* Q3 , Suki Goodman b, Lee Wallis

Healing begins from within, and being committed to a self-care plan, with clear boundaries in both your personal and professional life and understanding one’s negative behaviours and their root cause. Internal self-healing in our profession is a life-long management plan, but as you continue to do the necessary internal work, life will and can, begin to change for the better.

References, websites and additional reading:

Cocker, F., & Joss, N. (2016). Compassion fatigue among healthcare, emergency and community service workers: A systematic review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health

Hernandez-Wolfe, P., Killian, K., Engstrom, D., & Gangsei, D. (2015). Vicarious resilience, vicarious trauma, and awareness of equity in trauma work. Journal of Humanistic Psychology

Ray, S. L., Wong, C., White, D., & Heaslip, K. (2013). Compassion satisfaction, compassion fatigue, work life conditions, and burnout among frontline mental health care professionals. Traumatology

Sprang, G., Clark, J. J., & Whitt-Woosley, A. (2007). Compassion fatigue, compassion satisfaction, and burnout: Factors impacting a professional’s quality of life. Journal of Loss and Trauma

Mathhieu, F (2017) Transforming Compassion Fatigue into Compassion Satisfaction: Top 12 self-care tips for helpers. Workshop for helping professionals

Minnie L et al. Exposure to daily trauma: The experiences and coping mechanism of Emergency Medical Personnel. A cross-sectionalstudy, Afr J Emerg Med (2015),

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