Compassion Fatigue, How The Pandemic Has Taken an Exhausting Toll on Healthcare Workers

Compassion Fatigue BeLatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of thecompasscenter.org

It’s 2021, and we’re all so incredibly tired. We’re tired of wearing masks. We’re tired of feeling isolated or being stuck at home. We’re tired of missing our family members and friends. We’re tired of being surrounded by loss and illness. 

The exhaustion is so very real, and it feels never-ending. 

The good news is that it’s not all in your head, and you’re not alone. In reality, fatigue is a very real and very damaging side effect most of us are experiencing as we struggle through a global health crisis that has crippled us in more ways than one. 

This phenomenon is referred to as “compassion fatigue” by experts and psychologists, and it describes the emotional and physical exhaustion that has resulted from working with and being surrounded by a traumatized population during the pandemic. 

Most of us have heard people say, “I’m just so tired lately.” More often than not, we are the ones sharing these feelings of utter exhaustion. Whether we are stay-at-home moms, parents trying to work from home, healthcare workers, first responders, and everything in between, we are all suffering from feelings of overwhelming fatigue. And as the pandemic rages on, many people are starting to feel tired of feeling tired. 

What Exactly is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is defined as “the burnout and stress-related symptoms experienced by caregivers and other helping professionals in reaction to working with traumatized people over an extended period of time,” according to the American Psychological Association.

Essentially, caregivers — whether they be medical workers, healthcare professionals, or even parents, friends, and family members who are caring for a loved one — become so overwhelmed emotionally by what they are experiencing that they become numb to those feelings of empathy over time. 

People may find themselves so over-empathetic, taking on the suffering of those around them as the world battles Covid-19, that they cannot healthily process their patients’ suffering. 

This phenomenon is sometimes seen as an occupational hazard of “any professionals who use their emotions, their heart,” explains Charles R. Figley, Ph.D., founder of the Traumatology Institute at Tulane University. 

It’s almost as if this kind of fatigue is inevitable when you care for others every day of your professional (or personal) life. 

Figley thinks of it as the psychological cost of healing others. And while it might sometimes be unavoidable, it can also be very damaging depending on the severity. “It’s like a dark cloud that hangs over your head, goes wherever you go, and invades your thoughts,” he tells the APA Dr. Joanna B. Wolfson, Ph.D., senior psychologist at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation at NYU Langone Medical Center, agrees. 

In a recent paper published in Psychology Today, Dr. Wolfson explores this idea of compassion fatigue and the toll that the pandemic has taken on both healthcare workers and the general population in this country.

Why Does Stress Make Us Feel Tired?

In the Psychology Today post entitled “Why Am I So Tired? Managing fatigue during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Wolfson and her colleagues discuss the connection between the stress response during the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting fatigue that the general population and healthcare workers are all experiencing.

You’ve probably heard the term “fight or flight,” and you might be somewhat familiar with that stress response. When you detect any type of threat, your body quickly reacts in various physical and physiological ways to protect yourself. 

Imagine how you feel when you almost step into oncoming traffic. Your body tenses up; your vision focuses, adrenaline rushes through your veins, you start breathing rapidly, your blood pressure rises, etc. That reaction is exactly how your body is supposed to respond to a threat; it’s a matter of self-preservation so that you can run away or fight back. But issues can arise when that imminent threat is prolonged, and therefore the stress response causes more lasting damage. 

Experts suggest that extensive stress can lead to physical and emotional exhaustion. In scenarios where our bodies are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol for extended periods of time — such as a global pandemic — our physical and emotional well-being can deteriorate in more lasting ways. That’s because the “fight or flight” response is only meant to deal with immediate threats. Our bodies respond automatically in the face of a more continuous threat and the uncertainty of when that threat will even go away. When the hormones produced by that stress response go unused, the result is often intense exhaustion.

So, to put it in simplest terms, the extreme fatigue you are feeling is not all in your head. You’re actually that tired. And it’s totally understandable considering just how challenging and stressful this past year has been. 

While there is hope on the horizon thanks to ramped up vaccine distribution, and it certainly seems like there is finally a light at the end of this tunnel, there is also still a lot of uncertainty about when life will go back to normal (or perhaps a new normal) and how long the economic, physical, societal and emotional consequences will last.

The Covid-19 Pandemic and its Impact on our Emotional Well-Being

While any stressful situation can lead to exhaustion, the stress of the pandemic, particularly on healthcare workers, has led to significant compassion fatigue and burnout. Burnout is essentially when there is “too much work and not enough resources to do that work well.” It can lead to more significant psychological, emotional, and physical issues such as “depression and anxiety, physical and emotional exhaustion, less enjoyment of work, and more arguing,” according to Kerry A. Schwanz, Ph.D., of Coastal Carolina University.

Dr. Wolfson told BELatina that she sees this situation happening firsthand. “There is real burnout happening this past year. On the one hand, healthcare workers are feeling very rewarded to be helping people through this crisis. It can be a privilege to be on the caregiving end, where someone else is trusting you implicitly to help them. On the other hand, compassion has been stretched to the limits this past year, which takes a toll emotionally and physically.” 

In addition to healthcare workers, various studies have shown that most patients who contracted Covid-19 have experienced persistent fatigue in the weeks that followed their diagnosis and recovery. 

One study found that more than half of the surveyed patients reported persistent fatigue ten weeks after initial symptoms. Another study found that nearly 70 percent of Covid-19 patients reported fatigue post-discharge.

However, the pandemic’s intense impact on our emotional and physical well-being is not limited to Covid-19 patients and healthcare workers. The general public is also experiencing extreme exhaustion as a result of this global health crisis. Which makes sense, considering how long we have been experiencing this trauma and loss, whether we are exposed to the virus first-hand, or we are witnessing the trauma from a distance. 

On top of that, there are still many unknowns about the virus that are causing perpetual anxiety. 

“The unknowns of the pandemic have and are still looming large: variants emerging, restrictions loosening, people getting tired of being isolated. Despite vaccines offering hope and promise, this won’t simply override the stress that has been playing in the background (or foreground) of the whole last year. This less obvious fight or flight response has been taking a slow toll on the body and can leave anyone feeling depleted,” explains Dr. Wolfson. 

And for all the moms out there, newsflash (though this is probably not at all surprising to you) — you’ve been hit particularly hard in terms of pandemic-related burden and fatigue. Consider just how much moms are being asked to juggle. “Moms have been hit especially hard this past year: suddenly having one or more children at home full time — trying to man their virtual school programs, prepare meals, keep all the household balls in the air — and all this may be on top of and at the same time as ANOTHER full-time job,” argues Dr. Wolfson. “Moms have been a different kind of frontline worker through this. The mom often has to play superhero, but no one is immune from compassion fatigue and burnout.”

How to Combat Compassion Fatigue and General Exhaustion

The good news is there are some important things people can do to help minimize fatigue as we continue to live through this pandemic.

For healthcare workers, Wolfson’s advice is simple: take care of yourself first and foremost. Especially as we hope for the best and prepare for the worst in the form of a potential fourth wave of the virus and more contagious variants spreading across the country, caregivers and frontline workers need to check in with themselves and focus on their own physical and emotional needs. 

“Workers are needing breaks, and I hope they’re taking them. There can be this feeling of having to act as a savior to others at the expense of one’s own self-care, and then the result is just fatigue and a more stressed experience for everyone. It should be the other way around: if healthcare workers take time to be compassionate with and care for themselves, they will be better able to serve their patients,” suggests Wolfson. 

For anyone who is not a healthcare worker and who isn’t on the frontlines but who is battling this pandemic in his or her own way, you can take steps to manage your stress and exhaustion. 

First thing’s first, give yourself a break and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Embrace relaxation tools and practice mindfulness. Be realistic about what you are capable of and recognize that those capabilities might not be the same as pre-pandemic. 

Focus on healthy sleeping habits. When you feel exhausted, let yourself rest. Dedicate your energy to what fulfills you and gives you purpose. Prioritize self-care. Above all, be kind to yourself. 

“People need to recognize fatigue and their own limits,” explains Wolfson. “This has been and continues to be difficult – being isolated and hyper-vigilant to threat the past year is not how humans were designed to live their lives. If we recognize burnout, fatigue, and the real toll of caring for others (no matter how much we love them), we can make choices about how to proceed. Giving yourself a break, talking to sources of support, and engaging in activities that are joyful and meaningful can help.” 

While compassion fatigue and fatigue, in general, may be unavoidable during these troubling times and unprecedented challenges, focusing on living life with purpose and having self-compassion for all that we as individuals and as a community are going through are not only helpful but essential as we move forward. So, take a breath, take a nap, take a moment, and know that you’re not alone.