The importance of compassion fatigue awareness for leaders 

Compassion fatigue

Share Article

I have gotten to know this particular group of awesome leaders very well this year. Since March, we have come together for a three-hour leadership workshop every month, and last week was our last session for 2023. We’ll reconvene next March to kick things off again for 2024. 

Usually, when I log in, there are at least a few eager participants already waiting to join the session, but last week I was actually concerned that maybe I’d logged in on the wrong day. That would be very unlike me, but when five minutes after the start time there was still nobody in the “waiting room”, I did have my doubts. 

My 18 participants finally started to trickle in and as they filled the Brady Bunch screen in front of me, I could immediately sense that they weren’t their usual selves. I honestly felt like taking a screen shot. Everyone looked shattered; disgruntled; over it. Should I be taking it personally? 

Before launching into the workshop, I felt I needed to ask if everything (and more importantly everyone) was OK. 

Maisy was the first to speak up. 

“I think we’ve all just got a serious case of compassion fatigue”. 

Would anyone else chime in? Was it a co-incidence that as part of this final workshop for the year I had planned to shine the spotlight on the importance of self-care for leaders? 

Maisy continued.  

“I’ve been burnt out before and this is completely different”, she said. “We’re all just exhausted from caring so much”. 

I wanted to know more, so I asked whoever felt comfortable to share in the chat what exactly they were caring so much about. 

Talk about opening the floodgates.  

Within seconds the chat box filled with how over the last few months their team members had been overwhelmed by concerns over rising interest rates and the cost of living; the war in Ukraine; The Voice referendum; the recent tensions in the Middle East; and “all this off the back of Covid”. 

“Closely monitoring the mental health of teams as large as the ones we all look after is exhausting”, Maisy said. 

Rather than focusing purely on stress and burnout (and the need to ensure sufficient downtime over the Christmas break), I realised I had now been tasked with reinforcing for this particular group the importance of compassion fatigue awareness for leaders. 

In the realm of leadership today, empathy, compassion, and a genuine concern for the mental health and well-being of one’s team members are qualities that are highly regarded. 

The ability to connect with and support team members is often seen as a hallmark of effective leadership. However, it’s essential for leaders to be aware of the potential pitfalls associated with caring perhaps too deeply for their team members as was evident with the group of leaders looking to me for guidance the other day. 

Compassion fatigue is a condition that can take its toll on leaders, affecting not only their own well-being, but also their ability to lead effectively. 

The official definition of compassion fatigue (also known as secondary traumatic stress or empathetic strain) is a state of physical, emotional, and psychological exhaustion resulting from the constant demands of showing empathy towards individuals who might be emotionally overwhelmed themselves. 

During the pandemic, I saw this frequently when coaching many working parents who had unexpectedly found themselves with an additional full-time role of home schooling principal. And in my facilitation work in higher education, I have also seen it affect lecturers and tutors. 

Compassion fatigue can also impact leaders in many fields. 

I turned to the chat function once more, asking those who were comfortable to describe their ‘symptoms’ for want of a better term. Again, they didn’t hold back, and the chat box was filled with phrases like “emotionally overwhelmed”, “drained”, “depleted”, “fatigued”, “detached”, “cynical”, “frustrated”, “constantly irritable”, and “demotivated”. 

All these terms were the complete antithesis of how I would have described this group of leaders I had been working with for several months and yet at the same time every feeling was a clear symptom of compassion fatigue. 

For any leader, compassion fatigue can also manifest as physical symptoms such as headaches or insomnia not to mention complete disengagement from their role, which is exactly what I had seen when the group first logged into the workshop. 

Compassion fatigue can have a significant impact on a leader’s effectiveness and well-being, as it can hinder their ability to provide support and make sound decisions.  

Therefore, it’s crucial for leaders to recognise the signs of compassion fatigue and take steps to prevent it and address it in themselves and their teams. 

“How much should a leader care about their people before it takes its toll and results in compassion fatigue?”, I asked the group, now encouraging them to speak up as opposed to sharing their thoughts in the chat. 

Nobody said a word. A bit too close to home?  

I explained to the group that leaders should absolutely care about the well-being and development of their staff, as genuine concern and empathy are essential components of effective leadership. However, there’s a balance that leaders need to strike to avoid falling into compassion fatigue. 

While caring for employees is crucial, leaders should also establish and maintain healthy boundaries. 

I felt it was important to go back to something Maisy had said at the start of the session. Whilst she had experienced burnout in the past, she could sense that what she was feeling now was different. That’s because while compassion fatigue and burnout share some similarities, they have distinct characteristics and causes. 

While burnout is typically linked to chronic workplace stress, often resulting from prolonged periods of high demands, excessive workload, and a lack of control or support, compassion fatigue is associated with repeated exposure to the emotional challenges of others. And it was clear that each of these leaders’ team members had been emotionally challenged for quite some time now – as a result of endless lockdowns (these leaders were all from Victoria), 11 interest rate rises in 18 months, political and racial tensions here and abroad, not to mention a recent major organisational restructure. 

As a leader, it’s important to be vigilant and attentive to the obvious and subtle signs of compassion fatigue. Recognising these signs early can help leaders take proactive steps to address and prevent compassion fatigue. 

Compassion fatigue is a real and significant concern for any leader who genuinely cares about their team. 

While empathy and support are vital aspects of effective leadership, it’s crucial for leaders to be aware of the risks and symptoms of compassion fatigue. By recognising the signs and triggers, setting boundaries, practising self-care, and seeking support when needed, leaders can continue to provide authentic and compassionate leadership while safeguarding their own well-being.  

Remember, hellomonday  can provide support to every leader, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, helping leaders create a healthier and more sustainable work environment for themselves and their teams, ultimately enhancing their ability to lead with empathy and resilience. 

Get free leadership resources delivered straight to your inbox.

Sign up for our newsletter today to receive regular tips and resources. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to boost your leadership skills.

You might also like

Encouraging curiosity is as important as prioritising your own level of curiosity as a leader. Ask questions and invite questions from team members.
People have been leaving jobs for centuries. Resignations are unpredictable, but there are strategies employers should keep in mind to prevent repercussions of sudden, unexpected changes or loss in staff.
Perhaps you feel your career has been a series of lucky breaks, you were in the right place at the right time or promoted into your leadership role by fluke. You're not alone.
Young businesswoman working from her home office setup

Get free leadership resources delivered straight to your inbox!

Sign up for our newsletter today to receive regular tips and resources. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to boost your leadership skills.