Too tired to care? The rise of compassion fatigue

30 April 2021
Spring 2021

Compassion fatigue has peaked during the pandemic. Becky McCall asks how we recognise the signs and how we can all act to stop its spread.

When a patient walks through the optometrist’s door they bring a cross-section of their lives.

An optometrist must therefore be appropriately receptive, responsive and sensitive. They need to draw on their reserves of empathy and compassion.

This can be easier said than done. In giving their all to the patient, multiple times a day, with a long queue outside the door and a challenging caseload, any practitioner could be forgiven for feeling burnt out and numb. 

This is true now more than ever, as COVID-19 pushes even the most compassionate practitioners to the limit, both physically and mentally. 

At times like these, “compassion fatigue” can take hold (Figley, 2002). Sometimes referred to as burnout, “overwhelm” or the negative cost of caring, it is a condition characterised by emotional and physical exhaustion leading to a diminished ability to empathise or feel compassion for others. This can affect patients through an increase in medical errors. Preoccupation or lack of sympathy can also be detrimental to a patient’s care.

Specialists in the psychology of the healthcare workplace told Acuity why compassion fatigue sets in and how best to navigate the challenges it brings.

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