Empathy Fatigue and Healthcare Workers

Imagine working in a hospital and seeing patients go through similar stressful or traumatic events day in and day out. Imagine sitting behind the desk in a therapist’s office, talking them through it.

No day is exactly the same – only it starts to feel like it is.

You never wanted your compassionate line of work ever to start seeming like the same old same. Perhaps you never even imagined that it could because your involvement in your patients’ lives drives the very nature of what you do: not just to respond but respond emphatically.

Still, you’ve been at this healthcare thing for a couple of years or so, and lately, you’ve noticed yourself feeling numb, powerless, and disconnected. The other day you were called into work and told that one of your patients had passed away – something you’ve seen a lot of throughout this pandemic especially.

All you wanted to do at that moment was isolate yourself – but not to break down or process your usual emotions. No, these were the negative emotions of “empathy fatigue,” a condition that can arise in those who care for others regularly.

Empathy fatigue is the exhaustion from repeated exposure to stress or trauma.

It’s not just the sadness or pain of these events. It’s the overwhelm, hopelessness, frustration, and self-blame, all of which accumulate over time to create an emotional “drag” on your ability to empathize and connect.

Empathy fatigue is a phenomenon that helps explain why individuals like healthcare workers may ultimately feel unable to respond appropriately or relate to those around them. Emotionally, empathy fatigue can also manifest as having obsessive thoughts about others’ suffering to lacking the energy to care about what’s happening around them.

It’s a type of burnout that can also contribute to physical symptoms, including headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, and nausea. It can lead to changes in your appetite, conflict in your relationships, and, sometimes, avoidance or self-medicating behaviors. This kind of fatigue can also make it hard to concentrate and sleep.

If you’re experiencing empathy fatigue of any kind, don’t ignore it. Your body is trying to tell you that it’s time to take care of yourself both physically and emotionally.

Apart from becoming aware of how you’re feeling and what’s triggering you, one of the simplest places to start is focusing on what you can control. Commit to healthy lifestyle changes such as exercise and eating well. Make time for friends and talk to others about how you’re feeling because connection plays a significant role in healing ourselves from empathy fatigue.

On that note, this is also a good time to take a closer look at your life and assess how much balance you have in it. Ensure you have other hobbies and interests outside of taking care of others. Consider what brings you joy and do more of those things.

Healthcare workers are some of the most compassionate people on the planet, but they are not immune to empathy fatigue. These feelings of exhaustion, numbness, and disconnect best serve as a reminder that we cannot pour from an empty cup as both healthcare workers and human beings. If we want to continue living out our purpose and profession with intention, we must recognize when to direct more care back to ourselves.