Countering Compassion Fatigue

We have heard from our members that the long weeks of supporting families experiencing distress have taken a toll. For those on the frontlines of service, being a source of emotional, moral, and practical support for parents and caregivers is a deeply demanding experience. It requires, often and daily, dipping into their own reservoirs of strength, patience and compassion.

Compassion fatigue is a real and lived experience for many frontline workers. This week, our guest writer Dr. Maleeka Salih shares some helpful points for frontline workers and their organizations to understand and manage compassion fatigue during a time of crisis.


Compassion fatigue is the physical, mental and emotional exhaustion experienced by workers under prolonged, continuous and intense exposure to stressful conditions and interactions. It is recognized to be a survival strategy and a normal response to prolonged exposure to extremely stressful situations.

The restrictions and demands of the COVID-19 crisis response place significant stress on frontline workers. They face the risks and anxieties of compromising their own health and the health of their families while, in many cases, working under conditions of limited resources and increased demand.

Symptoms of compassion fatigue include disillusionment, exhaustion, irritability, and inability to cope with the pain or suffering of others – blaming them for their difficulties, feeling guilt and powerlessness, emotional numbness, and/or sleeping difficulties.

Building resilience is critical to preventing and combating compassion fatigue; resilience however does not occur in isolation. It takes place in a shared context and contains a strong interpersonal element to it. Support at a personal, organizational, family and community level is essential to nurturing resilience.

Practices and activities that frontline workers can do:

  • Reach out and ask for support: talk to supportive family, friends and colleagues whenever possible. Share your worries and frustration or tell them about a difficult or distressing experience and how it made you feel. Let your managers and mentors know if you are struggling emotionally.
  • Schedule quality social and meaningful activities: make time to catch up on a TV program, do things you like such as reading, dancing (even by yourself), or going for a (socially distanced) walk.
  • Practice self-care: be mindful of nutrition and your physical and mental well-being. Eating well, drinking enough water, and sufficient sleep, are crucial. Exercise and stretch your body, whenever possible. Do something calming and regenerating for yourself every day, even if it is listening to a song, mindful meditation, or smelling a perfume that connects you to the present.
  • Be kind to yourself: don’t judge your thoughts or emotions. Focus on your successes and put difficult situations into perspective. The current context is extremely demanding and, sometimes, the burdens will become too much. Learn to recognize when you are nearing your limits.
  • If needed, seek professional help.

Suggested organizational responses to support frontline staff:

  • Provide accurate, clear up-to-date information: communicate what is expected of staff and the efforts underway to help them work effectively and safely.
  • Set up peer support schemes: feeling supported can protect against stress and traumatic experiences.
  • Demonstrate understanding and empathy: let them know that emotional exhaustion and compassion fatigue are common responses to prolonged stress. Show that you care and that you appreciate their efforts.
  • Support self-care measures for staff: encourage mini breaks to stretch, nourish and hydrate, and nurture themselves.
  • Invest in interventions that bolster resilience and optimism: note and share the many stories in which staff and/or the community are coming together to address the challenges of COVID-19 together.
  • Share acknowledgement and recognition: if you are back in the workplace, perhaps cards of appreciation from the public or from each other can be displayed in common areas. If you are still working from home, perhaps share photos or emails of appreciation received from the public or those you serve.
Dr. Maleeka Salih

Dr. Maleeka Salih is a freelance consultant providing technical expertise in the field of mental health and psychosocial responses in emergency situations. She is based in London, UK.

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