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Compassion Fatigue in the Age of COVID-19

The already historical year of 2020 has put everyone’s mental health through the ringer. At the center of everyone’s stress is undoubtedly the novel coronavirus—also known frequently as COVID-19—that has swept across the nation and changed life as we know it over the past eight months. The impact of this dangerous virus has ranged from national public lockdowns, evictions, unemployment, travel bans, and the shuttering of many small businesses. Despite the hardships many people have faced since the beginning of the pandemic, a certain phenomenon called compassion fatigue allows for a certain amount of emotional detachment for those who are suffering.

What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is not a singular disease, but rather a continuation of various symptoms. It can be described as the “cost of caring” for other people, and is commonly seen in professions such as medicine, nursing, social work, and emergency services. In addition, it can also be referred to as secondary traumatic stress. With that being said, it should come as no surprise that many people find themselves experiencing significant compassion fatigue amidst a time of so much suffering. Although it may seem unsympathetic to consider yourself removed from all of the heartache in the world, it is far more common than you would think.


Why do people experience this during COVID-19?

One reason people may seem disconnected from the cruel reality of the novel coronavirus is sheer numbers. The amount of American citizens who have died from COVID-19—a whopping 200,000—is too large an amount for most brains to comprehend; our minds simply are not wired in such a way to understand. On paper, the number seems abstract. The sheer enormity of the figure itself can allow for a removal of sympathy and make a traumatic situation seem unreal due to the lack of personal impact that large numbers do not provide.


A large sum such as 200,000 does not evoke the same type of personal compassion and sympathy as a tragic story about one individual in particular. Thus, when faced with the reality of a stressful event, compassion fatigue lets people remain emotionally detached from it all. All of this is not just psychological theory; there are studies that show why our brains become detached when numbers are involved. It stands to reason that this can be an explanation for why some people—perhaps essential workers in particular—seem disconnected and burnout from the reality of the virus.


Despite the perceived impartiality on behalf of these people, it is entirely possible that these people do care quite a bit and are experiencing compassion fatigue. Luckily for everyone involved, there are many ways in which you can defeat and overcome compassion fatigue! Keep reading in order to find out how!

A frustrated woman sits with her head down at her desk.
Compassion fatigue is often referred to as the “cost of caring” for others, and not taking enough time to care for yourself. Image courtesy of

How can I defeat compassion fatigue?

1.     Prioritize self-care

Self-care Sunday is a popular trend for a reason! Prioritizing your own self-care is an essential skill that many more people need to be proficient in. After all, how can you care for others if you feel like you cannot care for yourself? In order to better take care of both your physical and emotional health, try designating times during the week where you can just focus on yourself, whether that be through the gym, having a movie night, or treating yourself to a nice dinner.

2.     Set boundaries

Setting boundaries, especially at work, can be a daunting task. In many careers, especially ones such as nursing or social work, you may often feel like you need to complete everything for everyone in order to keep the unit or office running smoothly. However, this is a bad idea in regards to your mental health. It is important to set boundaries in both your personal and professional life in order to maintain your sanity and prevent compassion fatigue.

3.     Slow it down

In such a fast-paced world, it is easy to be operating on high-powered mode at all times. The rise of social media has not helped this phenomenon. If you are feeling at all overwhelmed, it can be helpful to unplug your social media apps and devices and simply take a breath. Even if only temporarily, it can be extremely helpful in calming your mind down and allowing you to get your bearings.

4.     Find (or form!) a support group

There is strength in numbers, even in socially distant times. If you are feeling the effects of compassion fatigue, there is a very good chance that you are not suffering alone. Connecting with people who are experiencing the same type of stressful feelings could be critical in helping you get back on your feet and feel less alone during particularly scary times.

5.     Forgive yourself

It is okay to acknowledge that you are not superhuman. You may often feel like you are not functioning up to your normal standards, but in times like these, you should allow yourself the space to function at the best of your ability (even if that looks different from day to day!). Your productivity may wax and wane on a daily basis but forgiving yourself for any perceived inconsistencies is crucial to preventing compassion fatigue.

A woman stares to the side solemnly as she sits in front of her laptop.
Despite the prominence of compassion fatigue this year, there are many steps you can take to defeat it! Image courtesy of

The stressful times this year has brought about are unlikely to magically vanish once the clock ticks into 2021. COVID-19, and its subsequent consequences, is likely to be with us for a good duration of the near future, and compassion fatigue will likely run rampant. It is important to identify compassion fatigue in yourself and conquer it early so you can continue to best serve the people around you, as well as yourself.