Experts in the Media

Donna Stambulich – The West Australian

Clinical Psychologist

Donna Stambulich: Post-pandemic burnout has us suffering compassion fatigue.

We’re all busy and stressed, but how many of us are so caught up in our own “stuff” that we fail to see what’s happening in the world around us?

It might be an older person struggling to cross the road as people walk by, or a mum in the supermarket suffering the wrath of a toddler tantrum. Instead of offering a kind word, we judge her.

And how many times have people kept out of serious incidents or accidents because they “don’t want to get involved”?

Wondering where all the kindness has gone in 2023? You’re not alone.

During COVID we were kinder, because we all slowed down and made time for one another. But post-pandemic, we’ve become busy and self-involved again.

In its most basic form, compassion fatigue means that people’s emotional reserves are so low that they fail to offer compassion to others.

Historically, compassion fatigue or secondary post-traumatic stress disorder is something we associate with people working as psychologists, doctors, nurses, ambulance officers, police or military.

I wrote my clinical psychology master’s thesis on this very topic, as I saw it in my staff team. But I’m now noticing more normal everyday people suffering from the symptoms usually reserved for front line workers or trauma survivors.

And why wouldn’t we be distressed, fatigued and traumatised? In the past three years we’ve lived through a once in a generation health crisis resulting in a mental health tsunami.

The pandemic was like a slow-moving disaster that escalated in intensity over time. This resulted in the compounding or stacking of stress, fatigue and trauma on all our mental loads.

Consistently exposing yourself to the suffering and trauma of others, whether through your work, the media, or personal relationships, can lead to emotional exhaustion.

Empathy overload happens when people become so overwhelmed by the emotions and experiences of others, it leads to a depletion of their own emotional resources.

Secondary traumatic stress disorder occurs when people indirectly experience trauma through hearing about or witnessing the traumatic experiences of others. So COVID-19 was the perfect storm.

It undoubtedly placed a significant emotional and psychological burden on us all, and it’s possible that some people are experiencing compassion fatigue as a result.

The pandemic showed us a constant stream of distressing news, including illness, death, economic hardship, and social disruptions. Continuous exposure to distressing information can overwhelm people, leading to emotional exhaustion and a reduced capacity for empathy.

It also caused increased levels of stress and anxiety for many people due to concerns about health, finances, job security, and the well-being of their loved ones.

These elevated stress levels impacted everyone in different ways.

The pandemic also resulted in significant loss. The loss of loved ones, routines, social connections, and milestones. Experiencing grief and loss can be emotionally draining and also contribute to compassion fatigue.

It’s important to recognise that experiencing compassion fatigue isn’t a sign of weakness but rather a natural response to the prolonged exposure to challenging and distressing situations.

Seeking support from mental health professionals, engaging in self-care practices, and setting appropriate boundaries can help people recover from compassion fatigue.

And we really do need to recover. Because let’s face it, when the world is kinder, it’s a much nicer place for us all.