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What is the Difference between Burnout and Compassion Fatigue?

Kathy Pillow-Price, EdD

July 9, 2021



What is the difference between burnout and compassion fatigue?


While it is not uncommon to hear compassion fatigue referred to as burnout, the conditions are not the same. Compassion fatigue is more treatable than burnout, but it can also be less predictable and may come on suddenly or without much warning whereas burnout usually develops over time.

Comparison of burnout and compassion fatigue

Figure 1. Comparison of burnout and compassion fatigue.

As you can see in figure 1, burnout is when you are dissatisfied with work, and compassion fatigue is life dissatisfaction. With burnout, you feel under pressure, and with compassion fatigue, you may feel out of control. With burnout, taking time away from work or getting a new job will often fix the problem, but compassion fatigue requires a different treatment.

In the words of the founder of compassion fatigue, Dr. Charles Figley, "Compassion fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress. It is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper."

This Ask the Expert is an edited excerpt from the course, Caring for Yourself While Caring for Otherspresented by Kathy Pillow-Price, EdD.

kathy pillow price

Kathy Pillow-Price, EdD

Dr. Kathy Pillow-Price has spent most of her professional career working to improve the lives of children and families. She is a nationally known expert in the field of early childhood education and is a frequent presenter at regional and national events. After years teaching and working in higher education, she currently works in an executive grant management role. She has a master's degree in Early Childhood Education and a doctorate in Educational Leadership.

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