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Compassion Fatigue is the emotional strain/cost for the helper (e.g., social worker, mental health therapist, police officers, teachers, etc.) of working with those in crisis, suffering, and/or with traumatic experiences and toxic stress.  Compassion Fatigue has two interrelated but distinct manifestations, that can occur together or apart: Burnout and Secondary/Vicarious Trauma.  Burnout is a three phase process where in the helper comes to experience emotional exhaustion, detachment and a reduced sense of accomplishment.  Often, at the root of burnout are factors related to the organization, agency, and/or profession (e.g., low wages, confusing policies, no support).  Eventually those experiencing burnout may report a lack of caring about the work as a result.  Vicarious trauma is the trauma the helper is exposed to as a a helper and secondary traumatic stress are the signs and symptoms of this.  The biggest and most significant difference between Burnout and STS is Burnout is preventable and STS is an inevitable result of working with those in need.  For the helper, the root of the helper's trauma is trauma-related and is an unfortunate and inevitable cost of working those experiencing extreme stress.  Most of what I have to come to know about Compassion Fatigue comes from the work of Dr. Charles Figley and Dr. Pearlman, who are experts on the topic.

Hello Heidi,

Thanks for your thoughtful question. Having produced a film on vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue / secondary trauma, called β€œPORTRAITS OF PROFESSIONAL CAREGIVERS: Their Passion. Their Pain,” I also spend a good deal of time screening the film and leading workshops on this matter.   

A good deal of information about the subject you’ve raised is addressed in the film which features among other experts,  Drs. Sandra Bloom and Charles Figley. Additional related information along with video shorts can be found on our website website at  I’ve collaborated in the development of a rather extensive bibliography on the subject which I’d be glad to forward to you or anyone else upon your request by email.

My email and phone number are available, if you have additional questions or would like to discuss screenings or workshops on Secondary Trauma/ VT/ CF/ Burnout.

With best wishes,

Vic Compher, MSS, LCSW

Social Worker and Filmmaker



So much great information has already been shared. Charlotte is right on target about the causes and characteristics of burnout: "Often, at the root of burnout are factors related to the organization, agency, and/or profession (e.g., low wages, confusing policies, no support)."

While the others (VT, STS and CF) are specific to caring/helping professions, burn-out can happen in any setting the characteristics (Charlotte mentioned above) are present from office managers to car salespeople.


Thanks to everyone who has responded to this inquiry so far.  I truly appreciate your time, thoughtfulness and suggestions for additional resources.

I am asking the question because as I prepare to deliver a short one-hour in-house training for our Dynamic Mindfulness teachers who are  in schools where there is a disproportionate amount of toxic stress and trauma, I am noticing that there is a wide range of definitions for these terms in the literature. 

I will reach out individually to those of you who have offered resources.  Again much appreciated,  and would love to hear from others who may have additional thoughts on these topics.

Hi again, Heidi,

Here are some resources we've used in trainings about Caring for the Caregivers - they're in no particular order.

Nan Henderson, MSW,      β€œThe Resilience Workbook”

Francoise Mathieu,
β€œThe Compassion Fatigue Workbook”

Gina O’Connell Higgins,
β€œResilient Adults”

One of my very favorite quotes is a definition of Resilience: 

β€œAn innate self-righting and transcending ability within all children, youth, adults, organizations, and communities.”

  β€œThe Philosophy of Resilience in Action”

I like many of the responses and resources that have been given.  In trainings and in discussions, I tend to give some simple distinctions that people can remember and take with them:  

Burnout is physical and mental exhaustion.

Compassion fatigue is emotional exhaustion - not having the capacity to care for and empathize with someone

Vicarious/Secondary Trauma results in a compromise in one's sense of safety.

Sometimes, long clinically-based definitions - though good for guiding discussion and practice decisions -  don't easily create good transfer of learning

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