Tips for Healthcare Professionals: Coping With Stress and Compassion Fatigue [downloadable]

As a healthcare professional, you may face stress on the job under usual conditions due to long shifts, competing responsibilities, and witnessing or hearing about difficult patient experiences. As a responder on the front lines, you may be noticing signs of stress and distress in yourself and your coworkers.This tip sheet explores stress and compassion fatigue, as well as signs of distress after a disaster. It identifies ways to cope and enhance resilience, along with resources for more information and support.

Stress and Compassion Fatigue

Stress encompasses the ways that your body and brain respond to something you perceive as a demand in your environment. As a healthcare professional, your career requires you to respond to multiple demands at once, and you are likely already experienced in stress management.

Issues can arise, however, when you run short of time to recover between stressors, when you feel as though you cannot respond effectively to the many demands you face, or when you are part of a disaster-affected community and you are also having reactions to that experience.

Compassion fatigue includes two elements: burnout and secondary traumatic stress. Burnout is physical and mental exhaustion leading to reduced ability to cope with your environment. Burnout involves fatigue, frustration, a sense of helplessness, and reduced pleasure in work or other responsibilities. Secondary traumatic stress is the stress you may experience due to empathy with others you see going through trauma, including physical trauma such as serious injury, illness, or death. People also may experience secondary traumatic stress through empathy with others who talk with them about their traumas.

Signs and Symptoms of Disaster-related Distress

People affected by disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic often experience physical changes, as well as changes in thinking, emotions, and behavior. In addition to signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue, you may notice the following signs and symptoms of disaster distress in yourself and those around you.


  •  Stomachaches or diarrhea
  • Changes in appetite and eating habits
  • Headaches or other pains without a clear physical cause
  • Jumpiness or exaggerated startle response
  • Trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, sleeping too much, or trouble relaxing


  • ƒ Difficulty remembering things
  • ƒ Difficulty thinking clearly or concentrating
    ƒ Confusion
  • Increased worry ƒ Trouble making decisions


  • Anxiety and fear
  • Overwhelming sadness ƒ Anger
  • Guilt
  • Numbness and inability to feel joy or sadness


  • Increase or decrease in activity levels and reduced stamina
  • Frequent crying ƒ Use of alcohol or other drugs in an attempt to reduce distressing feelings or to forget
  • Angry outbursts
  • Desire to be alone most of the time and deliberate self- isolation
  • Risk-taking behaviors

Signs and Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue

In the current highly stressful environment, you may notice the following signs and symptoms in yourself or your coworkers:

  • ƒ Increased startle response to activity around you, a feeling of being “on edge”
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Exhaustion
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Impaired ability to care for patients and/or clients
  • Intrusive thoughts about patients and/or clients
  • Reduced enjoyment or satisfaction with work
  • Sense of lack of control or agency in your job
  • Feelings of disconnection from colleagues and work teams
  • Feelings of being overwhelmed by the amount of work to be done
  • Anger and irritability
  • Reduced ability to feel sympathy or empathy
  • Avoidance of reminders of upsetting experiences with patients
  • Increased use of alcohol or other drugs

Download this tip sheet for more information on self-care and stress management.

When To Seek Professional Support

If you or someone you care about is overwhelmed by stress and reactions to the pandemic, you may want to reach out for professional mental health and/or substance use services and treatment. Acknowledging the need for help is a sign of strength. Even just a few visits can be helpful.

One place to seek support is with your employer—most have an employee assistance program, which offers short-term counseling and referrals. Many psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors are now offering services by phone or through videoconferencing services. Some offer weekend and evening hours to accommodate work schedules. You can also check out the Helpful Resources section for free, confidential help with crises and referrals.

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) | Tips for Healthcare Professionals: Coping With Stress and Compassion Fatigue, | Public domain. Retrieved May 25, 2022.

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