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The Difference Between Burnout and Compassion Fatigue in Nonprofit

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Judi Christy, the director of marketing and communication at the Akron Area YMCA, discusses the differences between burnout and compassion fatigue in nonprofit.

As a writer I love to come across new terms. I heard one recently: compassion fatigue.

According to WebMD, “Compassion fatigue is a term that describes the physical, emotional and psychological impact of helping others — often through experiences of stress or trauma. It is most often associated with health care workers or in-home family caregivers. However, compassion fatigue has also slipped into the diagnosis for others not caring for the sick. The symptoms of depression, withdrawal, irritability and insomnia associated with compassion fatigue may be brought about by a stressful workplace environment, lack of resources or excessive hours with no apparent end in sight.”

I have to admit some of my colleagues – past and present – have complained of such ills. On occasion, I have as well. In any case, I chalked up this momentary malaise to good old-fashioned burnout. But, in doing more digging I learned compassion fatigue is not “burnout.”

Burnout is most commonly associated with tension and anxiety involved on the job. Burnout, as opposed to compassion fatigue, is very cumulative, relatively predictable and frequently fixed by a vacation – or in extreme cases – a switch of employer. I chose the job change in one instance of burnout, the vacation route in others, and most frequently, a nap. But we cannot just shut our eyes anymore.

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I have teacher friends who are retiring early. I have nurse friends who are reducing their hours. I also have friends working in management, marketing, IT and finance who are choosing to back away from the office to work at home. In conversations with all of them, a commonality exists: They just can’t take “it” anymore. They are fatigued. They are burned out. They are done.

Of course, we can blame COVID-19. But honestly, it may just have been the kick or that fervent final straw that broke the back of many a good worker. Before the pandemic, many folks chalked up their day-to-day challenges to life. Occasionally, you heard of someone chucking in the towel and jumping out of the sizzle, but for the most part, we just waited for the weekend. Then we dutifully set the alarm for Monday.

With the onset and drag of the pandemic, the barrage of bad news, the blast of social screaming, the mass exodus of service workers, and the revolving door of diseases, disparities and dysfunction slammed in our faces – some folks have truly had enough. They (we) need help, whether we know it or ask for it.

At the Y, we are here to strengthen our community. But what happens when our community is weakened by so many factors that it can’t be pumped up with free Group X classes or summer day camp? What happens when our staff – as part of that community – is also weary? How can we expect them to put on a happy face when they, too are inundated with social, political and physical darts aimed in all directions?

What did we do before? After all, with 170-plus years under our belt, the YMCA is no trainee to trouble. We have survived world wars, depressions, civil unrest and economic uncertainly. But, dare I say, we haven’t yet survived this – the “this” that has been affecting our health workers, law enforcement, educators, parents, children, partners and our staff. Still, we are called to keep calm and carry on, and we do.

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The Y connects with our members, engaging them in conversations and assuring them we are a safe space where they truly belong. But is that enough? Do we need to add more yoga classes? Stop every hour to take a deep, cleansing breath? Make sure that everyone gets a hug or a pat on the back without infringing on their personal space?

Do we bring in mental health partners for chats and stress balls for squeezes? Do we turn off all the TVs and make sure our music is soothing? Do we encourage and reward our staff for practicing self-care, thus allowing them to put on their own mask first, and take a deep breath?

We are human and cannot, despite our intent and efforts, make everyone and everything okay. By choice, we have compassion; by default we are tired. But, we are also resilient, committed, resourceful and hopeful. By no means will we stop trying to strengthen the community we share – inside and outside our walls.

Do you have experience navigating compassion fatigue in nonprofit? Have tips and advice to share? Comment below. 

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Judi Christy

Judi Christy is the director of marketing and communication at the Akron Area YMCA.

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