Compassion fatigue is a condition characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion leading to a diminished ability to empathize or feel compassion for others, often described as the negative cost of caring. It is sometimes referred to as secondary traumatic stress (STS). According to the Professional Quality of Life Scale, burnout and secondary traumatic stress are two interwoven elements of compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue is considered to be the result of working directly with victims of disasters, trauma, or illness, especially in the health care industry. Individuals working in other helping professions are also at risk for experiencing compassion fatigue. These include child protection workers, veterinarians, teachers, palliative care workers, journalists, police officers, firefighters, animal welfare workers, public librarians, health unit coordinators, and Student Affairs professionals. Non-professionals, such as family members and other informal caregivers of people who have a chronic illness, may also experience compassion fatigue. The term was first coined in 1992 by Carla Joinson to describe the negative impact hospital nurses were experiencing as a result of their repeated, daily exposure to patient emergencies.
People who experience compassion fatigue may exhibit a variety of symptoms including lowered concentration, numbness or feelings of helplessness, irritability, lack of self-satisfaction, withdrawal, aches and pains, or work absenteeism.
Journalism analysts argue that news media have caused widespread compassion fatigue in society by saturating newspapers and news shows with decontextualized images and stories of tragedy and suffering. This has caused the public to become desensitized or resistant to helping people who are suffering.