Overcoming Pandemic Compassion Fatigue

Key Takeaways

  • Leaders may be experiencing compassion fatigue due to the duration of the pandemic, which can make it difficult to lead your team with empathy
  • To restore compassion fatigue, recognize how news information affects you and consider limiting your exposure.
  • Prioritize self-care through journaling or meditation.

The isolation, uncertainty and anxiety related to COVID have all impacted almost half of Americans’ mental health[1] and led to organizational obstacles like leader and employee burnout[2]. However, even as the numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths dwindle in the United States, there is still progress to be made on bettering individuals’ mental well-being as we enter the recovery phase of this public health crisis.

Specifically, as the pandemic has worn on, people may have noticed that their capacity to feel emotions has decreased.

Early in this crisis, people were overwhelmed with news coverage and images of overflowing hospitals and steadily rising charts of pandemic-related illnesses and deaths. At this time, our anxiety and compassion for what others were going through was at a high: We were going through something unprecedented and wanted to help each other. But, emotions are like a muscle; if it’s over-used, it gets tired. After 18 months of emotional turmoil, if you are experiencing anxiety, irritability and lower empathy, your emotions may be tired, and you may be experiencing compassion fatigue.[3]

Compassion fatigue feels like you are “just done,” and it is a combination of physical, emotional and psychological exhaustion. Compassion fatigue can lead to detrimental health effects for individuals, including tiredness, headache, chest pain and sadness.[4] Compassion fatigue can also lead to negative effects for your organization, including decreased job performance, increased mistakes at work and lower employee morale.[5]

For leaders, it is important to combat compassion fatigue by leading with empathy.

To do this, experts recommend that people be mindful of how bad news affects them and limit their exposure to information that can lead to additional emotional exhaustion. Other recommendations include being mindful of what is controllable, like access to information, and making choices to prioritize mental well-being.

Finally, leaders should also consider activities like journaling, meditation or other forms of self-care to help restore emotional capacity.

As the pandemic wanes, it is important to remember to prioritize your mental health as much as your physical health. Doing so will make for better leadership and better outcomes for organizations.


[1] https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/poll-finding/mental-health-impact-of-the-covid-19-pandemic/ 

[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/edwardsegal/2021/02/17/leaders-and-employees-are-burning-out-at-record-rates-new-survey/?sh=5dd8db8a6499

[3] https://www.healthline.com/health/cope-with-compassion-fatigue#A-cap-on-empathy

[4] https://www.uvmhealth.org/coronavirus/staying-healthy/compassion-fatigue

[5] https://nwdrugtaskforce.ie/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Compassion-Fatigue-Handout-6.pdf

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