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The Difference Between Doctor Compassion Fatigue & Burnout

Both compassion fatigue and burnout have been major problems in the medical community for some time, and the pandemic only exacerbated this issue.

These terms are often used in association with each other but not often defined in contrast to one another. What exactly is the difference between physician compassion fatigue and burnout? Are they just two terms for the same phenomenon?

The short story is that burnout results from occupational stress and being overworked. Compassion fatigue, on the other hand, typically comes from ongoing engagement with people who are suffering, in pain, or traumatized. Burnout is a component of compassion fatigue, but compassion fatigue isn’t necessarily present when a physician is experiencing burnout.

What Is Doctor Compassion Fatigue?

Also known as vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue is a series of negative emotions that can result when individuals are in a helping profession, such as doctors, counselors, social workers, and police officers.

As you might imagine, “doctor compassion fatigue” or “physician compassion fatigue” refers to compassion fatigue experienced by physicians.

Doctor Compassion Fatigue

According to a report from Southeast Missouri State University, there are two primary components of compassion fatigue, which are:

  • Burnout
  • Secondary traumatic stress

Burnout is a term that refers to feelings of hopelessness and the feeling that one doesn’t have much positive impact through their work. It is a psychological concept that presents itself through a lack of motivation or interest. Burnout typically emerges slowly over time.

Secondary traumatic stress is the onset of symptoms that are similar to those experienced with posttraumatic stress disorder. These symptoms often come on rapidly, including difficulty sleeping, nightmares, or flashes of intrusive thoughts and images.

Compassion fatigue makes itself known in the form of both physical and emotional exhaustion. After being exposed to the suffering and trauma of patients for a prolonged period of time, an individual can start to experience the symptoms of compassion fatigue.

The Causes of Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue can stem from various sources, and a number of different elements can combine to leave a doctor in a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion.

A Compassion-Fatigued Doctor

Let’s look at some of the common factors contributing to this condition.

  • Ongoing exposure to suffering: One of the primary causes of compassion fatigue is continuously being exposed to the trauma, pain, and distress of your patients. 
  • High workload and long hours: When you have long work hours, tons of work, and a demanding schedule, it can leave you with chronic stress. This can mean you don’t have the time or energy to engage in self-care practices. Without this type of attention, you can increasingly inch toward compassion fatigue.
  • Empathy overload: Empathy can be incredibly useful when you’re working as a physician. However, when you feel deeply for others and connect with their emotional experiences without drawing clear boundaries, it can end up leaving you spent emotionally.
  • Lack of support: Compassion fatigue can end up being exacerbated by a lack of support, either in one’s personal life or at work. This can increase the feelings of being isolated and not having access to necessary resources, making it incredibly difficult to deal with such an emotionally demanding position.
  • Inadequate self-care: Though not the only cause of compassion fatigue by any means, failing to engage in self-care practices can contribute to the condition. Not practicing stress-reducing activities, seeking the support you need, or establishing boundaries in your work and personal life can put you at a higher risk for emotional exhaustion.
  • High expectations: Doctors tend to be high achievers, which can mean they are at a greater risk for compassion fatigue. The drive toward perfectionism can mean that they work to meet the needs of others while neglecting to take care of themselves, eventually leading to being depleted both emotionally and physically.
  • Administrative factors: Finally, it’s hard not to note the administration’s role in the emergence of compassion fatigue. When doctors are faced with piles of paperwork, an unsupportive administration, and limited control over decision-making, it can combine with the other factors on this list to produce the outcome of compassion fatigue.

What Is Physician Burnout?

Burnout is a state of chronic emotional and physical exhaustion that can emerge from ongoing work-related stress. Individuals in any profession can face burnout, but it’s particularly common in high-stress occupations.

A Physician Suffering From Burnout

If you work in healthcare, it should be no surprise that physicians and other medical professionals are at a 40% higher risk of occupational burnout than workers in other industries and fields.

The Causes of Physician Burnout

Unfortunately, physician burnout is increasingly common in the medical profession. Physicians are seeing more patients, dealing with more administrative tasks, and enjoying less freedom than in the past. When you combine that with the fact that they tend to be high-achievers who impose strict standards on themselves, it should come as no surprise that physician burnout is on the rise.

A Burned Out Physician

Let’s take a quick look at some of the primary causes of doctor burnout:

  • Lack of control and autonomy in the workplace
  • Excessive workload and long hours
  • The burden of electronic health records and documentation
  • Unhealthy work-life balance
  • High emotional demands of the job
  • Insufficient support and resources in the workplace
  • Neglected self-care
  • Frustration with the administration or the medical system
  • An unhealthy workplace culture

Compassion Fatigue Vs. Burnout: The Differences

One of the primary differences between compassion fatigue and burnout is their origin. Compassion fatigue typically occurs when an individual frequently interacts with victims of trauma or provides emotional support to others. Burnout, on the other hand, comes from being overworked and occupational stress.

A Doctor Dealing With Workplace Stress

Both burnout and compassion fatigue share a number of the same symptoms, which should come as no surprise since burnout is one of the primary components of compassion fatigue.

At the same time, though, they are distinctly different in that burnout is specifically related to chronic workplace stress and is a broader phenomenon. Compassion fatigue, on the other hand, is primarily caused by the emotional toll that comes along with caring for others.

How to Spot the Signs of Compassion Fatigue

If you’re experiencing compassion fatigue, there’s a good chance you’re noticing symptoms that are impacting both your personal and professional life.

Signs of Compassion Fatigue

First, let’s take a look at some of the personal symptoms that can emerge when experiencing doctor compassion fatigue:

  • Emotional symptoms: Feelings of anxiety, distress, powerlessness, or helplessness
  • Physical symptoms: Fatigue, headaches, or a weakened immune system
  • Cognitive symptoms: Diminished ability to concentrate, inattention, lack of focus, pessimism, recurrent thoughts, or unwanted thoughts
  • Spiritual symptoms: Feelings of a loss of meaning in life, loss of purpose, or questioning whether there is good in the world
  • Relationship symptoms: Isolated from family or friends, withdrawn from family or friends, reduced feelings of trust in family or friends
  • Behavioral symptoms: Changes in sleep or appetite, increased irritability, being easily spooked or startled, or hypervigilance

In the workplace, a number of symptoms can make themselves known when an individual is suffering from compassion fatigue, including:

  • Morale symptoms: Reduced feelings of confidence, feeling unappreciated and undervalued, apathy or a loss of interest in one’s work, reduced compassion, or feeling disconnected
  • Performance symptoms: Low motivation, decreased work quality, or forgetfulness
  • Behavioral symptoms: Arriving late to work, calling out more often than usual, or a general increase in irresponsible behavior at work
  • Relationship symptoms: Withdraw from colleagues, detached from colleagues, increased impatience with clients or colleagues, or increased conflict with clients or colleagues

Understanding the symptoms and signs of compassion fatigue can help you recognize what is occurring before it negatively impacts your personal and professional life. 

How to Spot the Signs of Physician Burnout

Burnout is a major problem in the medical community– in fact, it’s one of the top reasons that doctors quit their jobs.

Signs of Physician Burnout

You can keep an eye out for several signs to help you recognize when you’re at risk of physician burnout.

Emotional Detachment

One of the key components of burnout for doctors is emotional detachment. If you’ve ever felt very cynical about your work or made sarcastic comments about your patients, you might suffer from emotional detachment.

An Emotionally Detached Doctor

It’s easy to beat yourself up when you start feeling this way, but it’s important to recognize that being a doctor can be a highly emotional occupation. You frequently interact with people in pain, suffering, or frightened. Over time, you can start to get desensitized to these interactions, indicating that you need to address burnout.


Perhaps the most persistent symptom of burnout for many doctors is exhaustion. A physician who is experiencing burnout might struggle to get out of bed in the morning and feel completely cooked by the time the days are over. Rather than using your time after work to spend time with loved ones or engage in a hobby, you collapse on the couch.

An Exhausted Doctor

If you’re noticing that you simply feel exhausted all the time, it’s probably a good idea to seek help for your burnout.

Feeling Overwhelmed By Work

Living a full, meaningful life requires that you are able to give your attention to several different areas of life. However, a physician who is experiencing burnout can feel like their work is completely taking over, leaving them with little to no time to spend time with friends, spend meaningful solitary time, or engage in once-loved hobbies.

A Doctor Feeling Overwhelmed by Work

One common sign of burnout is the inability to stop focusing on work even when off the clock. For example, if you fixate on work when engaging in a recreational activity you usually find enjoyable, you might be experiencing burnout.

Feeling Like Your Work Is Meaningless

Another common feeling experienced by physicians with burnout is that of meaningless or uselessness.

If you’ve been asking yourself, “What’s even the point?” Regarding your daily work as a doctor, there’s a chance you’ve got a case of burnout on your hands.

A Doctor Feeling Meaningless

Of course, everyone is going to have some bad days from time to time that leaves them questioning their profession. However, when this feeling persists, it can grow into other psychological problems, such as depression. 

Making More Mistakes

If burnout continues to run rampant without being checked, it can greatly impact your performance at work. Everyone is going to make some errors at work from time to time, but if you’ve noticed an increase in the mistakes you’ve made, it might be a sign of burnout.

A Doctor Struggling Emotionally

These are only some of the symptoms of physician burnout. Others that you’ll want to keep an eye out for include:

  • Increased impatience and irritability: Being short-tempered, easily frustrated, or having a decreased tolerance for challenges or small inconveniences
  • Professional isolation: Avoiding social interactions at work, withdrawing from colleagues, and feeling isolated from one’s colleagues and patients
  • Cognitive symptoms: Having difficulty maintaining productivity, making decisions, and concentrating
  • Decreased attention toward patients: Reduced professional efficacy or a decline in the quality of patient care
  • Neglected self-care: Not taking the time to engage in self-care activities and address one’s own personal needs, such as participating in hobbies, getting exercise, or spending time relaxing

To learn more about the impact of burnout on medical professionals, check out our ultimate guide to physician emotional burnout.

Ready to Try Something New?

In some cases, compassion fatigue and burnout can simply be signs that it’s time for you to step back and prioritize taking care of yourself. You might love your role as a doctor, but you just have to start working to achieve a better work-life balance in order for it to be a sustainable profession.

In other cases, though, you might find that the things that are causing your burnout or compassion fatigue aren’t going to be solved by learning some breathing exercises or meditation techniques. You’re ready to get more from your work and from your life, and working as a doctor in the way you expected isn’t giving you the freedom you need.

A Successful Doctor

If you find yourself in the second camp, you’re in the right place. I’m here to teach medical professionals how to start and grow successful businesses that help them earn more money and have more time. Since I started my business, I’ve helped hundreds of physicians achieve their dreams on their own terms.

Are you ready to join them? If so, book a call with me today.