The weight of the toll depends largely on the nature of the work being done, with nonprofits in the social services-type spaces (addiction, sex trafficking, domestic abuse, homelessness, food insecurity, etc.) carrying the heaviest weights. However, regardless of the focus of the mission, employees in the nonprofit sector working for the betterment of people, animals, the environment, or the community at large, all bring home some measure of emotional baggage as a result of caring so much, so often.
The term for the personal toll that nonprofit work takes is commonly referred to as “compassion fatigue.”
What is Compassion Fatigue?
The American Institute of Stress defines compassion fatigue as, “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.”
Even WebMD lists it as a health condition, saying: “If you work in a professional setting that deals with other people’s trauma day in and day out — at a hospital, in a psychologist’s office, or at a homeless shelter, for example — you may experience a condition of extreme tiredness and desperation. This is called compassion fatigue.”
Both definitions mention trauma as a key component of compassion fatigue, which makes sense in the context of nonprofit social work where employees are dealing with those experiencing violence, bereavement, addiction, homelessness, food insecurity, immigration, sexual trauma, abduction, or any other overtly traumatic life events.
But what about causes like global warming, an affordable education, endangered animal protection, fostering the arts, mentoring our youth, accessible healthcare, or anything else non-trauma related? These spaces too can have nonprofit employees dealing with compassion fatigue because even in these areas there is an ever-present weight of people and things to care about deeply – the feeling that there is one more person or animal or region to protect and nurture and you can never do enough. And the pressure of this responsibility compounds over time, weighing down on nonprofit workers emotionally, negatively affecting their professional and personal lives.
Unfortunately, more empathetic people are more likely to suffer from compassion fatigue, which means that some of the nonprofit world’s best people have the biggest targets on their backs. Knowing what compassion fatigue looks like and how it impacts an employee’s work is critical to preventing it (or at least heading it off quickly once it starts). Boards and nonprofit executive leadership should keep their eyes open for the warning signs of compassion fatigue among their staff members and peers.
Compassion Fatigue vs Burnout
Sometimes “nonprofit burnout” and “compassion fatigue” are used interchangeably to describe the exhaustion that nonprofit people experience. However, these are very different terms.
Nonprofit burnout is just like burnout in the private sector. It represents a professional weariness – ongoing fatigue that results from doing too much for too long or without enough gratification to keep it fulfilling. However, employees that are burnt out (regardless of the industry) can find relief relatively quickly by making conscious choices like changing roles or employers, going on vacation, taking a sabbatical, or choosing to develop new habits (like not checking your email on the weekends).
Compassion fatigue is a more intense form of burnout – it is much deeper and, therefore, harder to fix. It typically lasts much longer, and if it is left intreated it may even prevent an employee from continuing to work in the nonprofit space at all.
In a post-COVID world, employees are more prone to compassion fatigue because they are simultaneously juggling a heavier mental load these days and are also more in need than ever before. As communities continue to grieve losses, deal with lingering COVID symptoms, and overcome financial hardships caused by business disruptions during the pandemic, nonprofits are filling the gaps on all fronts to serve their communities.
Compassion Fatigue Symptoms
Compassion fatigue causes employees to feel disconnected from their work and isolated. As a result, employees often experience an emotional numbness in their personal lives as well.
The mental symptoms of compassion fatigue mimic the symptoms of depression:
The YWCA of Kitsap County outlines an extensive list of possible compassion fatigue symptoms.
Compassion fatigue causes physical symptoms as well, such as:
Employees suffering from compassion fatigue may exhibit destructive behavior and increase their alcohol consumption and drug use to cope with these feelings. As a result, compassion fatigue can sometimes result in even more serious medical conditions like ulcers and mental disorders.
Dealing with Compassion Fatigue
Overcoming compassion fatigue requires self-reflection and seeking specialized help. A nonprofit employee should take the time needed to figure out what is important to them and make a plan for how they will live in a way that will let them prioritize that. Compassion fatigue treatment typically includes:
While you are out, trust that the organization you were a part of will function without you and go on serving others effectively. If you are able to return after taking a break, that is ideal. And if you need to step away for good, they will find someone else to do the work. Do not put the organization’s mission on your back alone at the expense of yourself. Remember, you will not be able to serve anyone if you cannot take care of yourself. Or, as the flight attendants always say before takeoff, “Secure your own mask before securing the masks of others around you.”
If your organization needs a fresh perspective, please reach out to us. We offer interim nonprofit leadership, nonprofit executive search, and board advisory services to help nonprofits accomplish their missions in the face of burnout and compassion fatigue. Contact us to find out more about how we can come alongside your team in support.
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