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Empathy fatigue: the cost of caring

A hand holds up a red, heart-shaped paper cut out.

A guest article by Annie Harvey

Twelve years ago, while teaching a class of 30 young children – three of them with cognitive and physical disabilities – I became a statistic. I was a burned out teacher who left the profession within five years of training.

In my first year of teaching, I’d been encouraged to take my compassion to the classroom every day. Hindsight is a great thing, and what I now know is that what I actually took each day was my endless supply of empathy, and it was exhausting. This experience started me on a long road to recovery and discovery.

Empathy fatigue vs. burnout

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is chronic workplace stress not managed effectively over time. But in 2010, there was more to it for me, and it took me nearly four years of research to realise I had really been suffering from empathy fatigue.

By 2014, when I became a carer to both my parents, I knew I needed to avoid this thing if I was to be a good carer and a well carer, as well as a great partner, friend and business owner.

Empathy fatigue differs from burnout and has a unique, negative effect. So, who is vulnerable to it? Well, anyone in roles in ongoing human service and, right now, anyone who chooses to watch world news! 

Back in 2010, my symptoms included poor sleep, impaired judgment, feelings of isolation and – over time – a loss of self worth. Empathy fatigue can come on much more rapidly than burnout, but if recognised and managed well, there is a faster recovery, or even a chance to avoid it all together.

In 1995, Charles Figley – now the the Tulane University Paul Henry Kurzweg, MD Distinguished Chair in Disaster Mental Health – wrote: “Humans have both the gift and the curse of extreme empathy. We feel others’ feelings, we experience their fears, eventually losing our optimism, humour, and hope. We aren’t sick, but we aren’t ourselves.”.

And psychiatrist Frank Ochberg, a pioneer in trauma science, wrote: “Over time our ability to feel and care for others becomes eroded through overuse of empathy.”. Recognise yourself or anyone else here?

What exactly is empathy fatigue?

I like to describe empathy fatigue as the emotional residue from exposure to those who are suffering, and from us witnessing their stress. Were you once motivated and engaged, productive and dedicated? Now you’re overworked and exhausted?

Perhaps you spend your day regulating the feelings of others and then, over time, have zero tolerance for colleagues, friends or family, and the little things like the missing loo roll become unresolvable!

Perhaps you’re too busy attuning to others and not yourself? This was me. I’d heard the term ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’, so I started to refill my cup at the weekends or during my annual leave. But we need more – I needed more.

It’s difficult to pour from an empty cup

After years of research and trying things out, and in particular during the past couple of years where we’ve all suffered in some way ourselves, I realised I needed to understand and commit to filling my cup while I pour as well.

Empathy is all about resonance. If you resonate, your body goes with you. Think of it like a mirror. It’s the ability to share someone’s feelings or experiences. We can literally catch their emotions. We feel with them, and we feel their distress. We use that empathy to connect. And this is normal and human.

Unfortunately, our fight, flight or freeze response in our brain is activated by actual or perceived threats. So, through working with our clients or just watching the news, even though it’s not happening to us, our brain doesn’t know the difference and it goes into protection response and survival mode straight away. So, we need to cultivate our ability to recognise others’ distress without it becoming our own experience. How? By moving through empathy and turning it into compassion, both for others and ourselves. And the magical part is, we can’t fatigue from compassion.

The solution to empathy fatigue? Compassion

Compassion allows us to feel connected and good within ourselves, not drained. It’s a human quality anchored in the recognition of, and desire to relieve, hardship. This is about feeling for others, not with them. See the subtle yet powerful difference? This state is much more energising and positive. It allows us to still be with the person without feeling overwhelmed, so it’s more sustainable too. If you can care for yourself, this increases your capacity to safely support others, so it’s a win/win!

To connect with peers and discuss empathy fatigue or any other topic of interest to disability service providers, why not jump on to Kinora, an online community created by My Plan Manager.


Top tips for moving from empathy to compassion

Take five deep breaths: lengthening your out breath regulates your fight, flight or freeze response and switches on your relaxation response.

Anchors: feel your feet on the floor or turn your head slowly to the left and then the right and spot a few colours or shapes (this tells your brain it is safe), or find three things you can see, two things you can feel, and one thing you can hear.

Kindness: give yourself some kind words (yes, yourself), and think about what you might say to a friend in your situation (e.g., ‘this is hard right now’ or ‘this is painful for you’). At the same time, hold your own hand/shoulder/heart tenderly and kindly.

Endorphins: these are our natural reward system and our painkiller. You can increase your endorphins by exercising, spending time with friends, receiving a massage, engaging in meditation, using aromatherapy and, if you have some at hand, eating dark chocolate.


A photograph of Annie Harvey.

Annie Harvey is an author, TEDx and keynote speaker, and wellbeing educator. She is also a laughter yoga trainer. You can find her book here.

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My Plan Manager: NDIS Plan Management