Compassion fatigue and burnout: What they are and how to recover

In the prolonged emergency of the COVID-19 pandemic – a year and a half filled with uncertainty and emotional turmoil, along with the disproportionate impact of racism on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities – we are seeing the development of compassion fatigue and burnout in the workplace. These conditions can lead to long-term mental and physical health complications. Fortunately, steps can be taken to recover from compassion fatigue and burnout and to develop resiliency to carry us through.

What is compassion fatigue?

Individuals working in helping professions or performing caregiver duties at home are at highest risk for developing compassion fatigue. People experiencing compassion fatigue may exhibit feelings of emptiness or nothing left to give, and may develop lowered concentration, irritability, or aches and pains. When left unaddressed, compassion fatigue can often lead to burnout.

What is burnout?

Burnout can be caused by chronic work stress that is unmanaged. According to the World Health Organization, people experiencing burnout typically feel exhaustion, are likely to feel detached or cynical about their job, and may see a decline in productivity at work. Burnout can happen anytime in any job and is a very normal response to difficult circumstances, such as the pandemic.

Burnout can show up as feelings of exhaustion, lack of motivation, depletion, anger, or a difficulty with focusing or being productive. Often, people who are burned out will feel snappy, angry, or have trouble sleeping.  

How do you recover?

Recovering from compassion fatigue and burnout are very dependent on each person’s individual needs. Almost everyone will find it is difficult to recover from burnout within the circumstances that caused burnout, so both recovery and prevention will require adjustments.

To recover from and prevent burnout and compassion fatigue, you may need a combination of time off from work, activities to help recharge, or reprioritized workloads. Below, you will find steps you can take and resources you can access to help.

Take time off or access alternative schedules

Taking time away from the office allows you to rest and meet your personal needs. Whether you are experiencing burnout or trying to prevent it, time away can be an important part of your plan. King County employees have access to many resources to support leave. Some resources in the list below are only available to some employees. Speak to your supervisor or manager for more information.

Balanced You recommends you schedule one to two days before and after leave with reduced meetings to give you time to prepare for leave and give you time to reintegrate upon your return. If you are feeling too overwhelmed to schedule leave, please speak with your supervisor, HR manager, or an EAP counselor.

  • Alternative works schedules: Alternative schedules, such as a 9/80 option, or work schedules outside traditional hours, can offer you the space you need to recover and build resiliency by attending to your own needs. Visit this page for more information.
  • Paid vacation leave and executive leave: During a crisis, such as the pandemic, you may feel like you cannot take time off. However, if you are experiencing burnout or compassion fatigue, you are not able to excel in work. Schedule leave to build resiliency; if you need support with your workload or time away, speak to your supervisor, HR manager, or the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). More information on executive leave can be found here.
  • Paid Administrative Leave – COVID: This leave provides up to 80 hours of paid administrative leave (prorated for schedules of less than 40 hours) for certain COVID-related reasons. To request paid administrative leave for COVID-related reasons, use the Paid Administrative Leave COVID-19 Form.
  • Emergency Donated Leave – COVID: This leave provides up to a maximum of 80 hours of emergency donated leave for COVID-related reasons in 2021. For more information about this program, visit the Emergency Leave Donation Program page.
  • Reasonable accommodation: A reasonable accommodation is a modification or adjustment to a job, the work environment, or the way things are usually done during the hiring process to enable an individual with a disability to have an equal opportunity not only to get a job, but successfully perform their job tasks to the same extent as people without disabilities. Some reasonable accommodations may include adjusted schedules or time away from the office. Your Human Resources representative is available to assist.

Integrate strategies to recharge

Everyone fills their cup differently, and almost everyone’s strategies to fill their cup have been compromised by the pandemic and accompanying burnout. Take a moment to ask yourself, what are you missing? What do you enjoy? How can you incorporate it in small amounts the feel good?

Some employees may be at a point where they are feeling too overwhelmed, or burned out, to add anything onto your plate. A good strategy to integrate for this would be boundaries with work or home to allow yourself to rest. If you need additional support navigating developing boundaries with work, please contact EAP.

Other employees may be ready to take small steps to incorporate safe social connection, time developing hobbies, or time working out. This will look different for everyone, and remember, there are Balanced You resources available to support some of your needs. Examples are listed below:

  • Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a great way to recharge, learn to manage anxiety, and learn to live intentionally. Balanced You offers virtual, interactive mindfulness classes as well as on-demand videos for employees.
  • Physical Activity: Moving your body can be an effective stress reliever, can help our overall health, and can be fun. Balanced You offers virtual, interactive Yoga and Total Body Strength classes, as well as on-demand videos for employees. In addition, Activity Centers are now open to fully vaccinated employees.
  • Mental Health Counselors: Working with a counselor can be a great way to process ongoing stressors, build space to grieve the pandemic, and/or find support for integrating healthy strategies into your life. Employees can access mental health counselors via EAP, Making Life Easier, or their insurance benefits.

Work with your manager to prevent burnout in the future

If you recover from burnout, and come back to work systems that haven’t changed, you are likely to re-enter burnout. To help you maintain your new boundaries and your new recharging activities, speak to your manager about strategies you can take together to decrease burnout and increase resiliency.

  • Balance energy giving and energy sapping tasks: Speak with your manager about work that you enjoy, and work you find more tiring. Ask your manager if is feasible to adjust work across the team so you are more dedicated to work that does not deplete you.
  • Integrate well-being strategies into your workday: Speak with your manager or team about integrating well-being into the workday. This could include walking meetings, short mindfulness video breaks, or sharing funny memes.
  • Start a Debriefing Group: If you are a frontline employee or part of the COVID response, talk to your manager about starting a Debriefing Group. These groups, led by mental health professionals, give teams space to process stressful events and share resources and coping strategies.
  • Bring Balanced You resources into your team: Consider contacting Balanced You for a live overview of Balanced You Programs, or an interactive burnout and resiliency training.

Additional resources

For additional mental health resources, please review the King County Mental Health Benefits and Resources Guide.

If you are a manager or supervisor, and would like more information on how to support your team through recovery from burnout, please consider reviewing this guide and/or reach our to BalancedYou@kingcounty.gov to set up a Burnout, Resiliency and Compassion Fatigue training for your team.

For more information on burnout and recovery, as well as resources available to support employees, please contact BalancedYou@KingCounty.gov.

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