Caregiver burnout vs. compassion fatigue: What’s the difference?

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Being a caregiver is rewarding and demanding at the same time. You want to do everything you can to keep the person you love happy and healthy, but sometimes, caregiving responsibilities lead you to neglect your own wellbeing. 

Read on to discover the consequences of this neglect – caregiver burnout and compassion fatigue – and what you can do to avoid them.

What is caregiver burnout?

While often a rewarding experience, being a caregiver is challenging and can easily become frustrating or stressful over time1.

With little or no help, you start to feel overwhelmed. And when the stress becomes too much to handle, it turns into a state of physical and mental exhaustion known as caregiver burnout1

What causes caregiver burnout?

Many factors associated with caregiving can cause burnout, including1-3:

  • Feeling responsible for another person's physical and emotional wellbeing.
  • Trying to meet everyone’s needs.
  • Not knowing exactly what your responsibilities are.
  • Having too many things to do.
  • Lack of privacy or independence.
  • Not being able to say no to your loved one.
  • Feeling that you don’t have the necessary skills to care for another person. 
  • Feeling that you’ve failed. 

What are the consequences of caregiver burnout?

Burnout can have a negative impact on a caregiver’s life. The most common consequences are1-3:

  • Depression.
  • Fatigue.
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Sleep disorders.
  • Negative emotions towards the care recipient.
  • Getting sick more often.
  • Appetite changes.

Caregiver burnout vs. compassion fatigue: How can you tell the difference?

People often mistake burnout for compassion fatigue, but there are significant differences between these two conditions4.

While burnout develops gradually under prolonged stress, compassion fatigue is a sudden response to a stressful caregiving experience4.

Compassion fatigue is usually associated with healthcare professionals, but it can also affect family caregivers. It occurs when the burden of dealing with someone else's pain, while also dealing with your own, becomes too difficult to bear. As a result, you become physically, emotionally, and socially exhausted, until you no longer feel capable of caring for someone else4,5.

Think of compassion fatigue as a defense mechanism in which your body asks you to step back and take care of yourself5.

What are the consequences of compassion fatigue?

Caregivers with compassion fatigue may develop4:

  • Symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • Sleep problems.
  • A desire to isolate from family and friends.
  • Lack of empathy.
  • Irritability, excess criticism, cynicism, or sarcasm.
  • Loss of interest in the things they used to like.
  • Weight or appetite changes.
  • Other health issues like headaches, gastrointestinal problems, muscle tightness, and hypertension. 
  • Repeated thoughts about other people's suffering.
  • Alcohol or drug abuse.

How to manage caregiver burnout and compassion fatigue

When caregiving becomes so hard that you feel as though you can't do anything else in life, it's essential to ask for help. Here are some general tips to avoid and cope with burnout and compassion fatigue1,5:

  • Take a moment to pay attention to how you feel. It's okay to have negative feelings –– they don’t make you a bad person. 
  • Talk to someone you trust about your feelings and frustrations.
  • Join a support group and talk to a mental health professional. 
  • Ask for help with caregiving tasks whenever possible. This help can come from friends, family, or even a home care agency. 
  • Finding a balance between caring and your personal life is extremely important. Try to eat well, exercise regularly, get enough sleep, and do something enjoyable once in a while. 
  • Keep in touch with friends and family.
  • Get information from trusted sources and healthcare professionals. The more you know about the disease of the person you're caring for, the easier it is to deal with it because you already know what to expect and what to do. Learn to identify and respect your boundaries.
  • Be realistic about your loved one's illness. It may be that he or she needs more specialized help at some point.

How can Hero help?

When it comes to caregiving responsibilities, managing a loved one’s medication can be stressful and time-consuming—especially when their condition requires them to take five or more different pills a day6

Without help, it's easy to get lost and disorganized. After all, each medication must be taken at a specific time each day. Some can be consumed with food; others cannot. Some can’t be mixed, or they can cause serious adverse events7

What’s more, missing doses or taking meds at the wrong time can impair treatment outcomes, so following your doctor's and pharmacist's recommendations becomes absolutely crucial7.

So, how do you manage a complex regimen when you already have so much on your plate?

Hero’s end-to-end medication management service can help take all the stress out of medication management, so you can focus on other responsibilities and self-care. Hero’s award-winning automatic pill dispenser holds up to a 90-day supply of 10 different medications, and alerts you it’s pill time with a sound and a blinking light. All you have to do is press one button, and it will dispense your dose!

The dispenser comes with a medication management app that allows you to add a medication list, receive pill-time reminders and missed-dose alerts, and track your loved one’s adherence. Hero can even deliver your refills to your door at no extra cost, so you can say goodbye to those countless pharmacy trips! 

Learn more about how Hero takes the hassle out of taking meds here.

Conclusion

Caring for someone is an act of love, but it can also be stressful. When the pressure becomes unbearable, it can affect your health as well as your loved one’s. 

Don't forget to take care of your health and get all the support you can, so you can avoid caregiver burnout and compassion fatigue. 

Sources

1. Cleveland Clinic. Caregiver Burnout. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9225-caregiver-burnout#:~:text=is%20caregiver%20burnout%3F-,Caregiver%20burnout%20is%20a%20state%20of%20physical%2C%20emotional%20and%20mental,are%20able%2C%20physically%20or%20financially. 

2. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Causes and Symptoms of Caregiver Burnout. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/about/community_health/johns-hopkins-bayview/services/called_to_care/causes_symptoms_caregiver_burnout.html. 

3. Mayo Clinic. Caregiver stress: Tips for taking care of yourself. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/caregiver-stress/art-20044784. 2020. 

4. Lynch SH, Lobo ML. Compassion fatigue in family caregivers: a Wilsonian concept analysis. Journal of advanced nursing. 2012;68(9):2125–34. 

5. Cleveland Clinic. Empathy Fatigue: How Stress and Trauma Can Take a Toll on You. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/empathy-fatigue-how-stress-and-trauma-can-take-a-toll-on-you/. 2021. 

6. Masnoon N, Shakib S, Kalisch-Ellett L, Caughey GE. What is polypharmacy? A systematic review of definitions. BMC geriatrics [Internet]. 2017 Oct 10;17(1):230. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29017448

7. FDA. Why You Need to Take Your Medications as Prescribed or Instructed. https://www.fda.gov/drugs/special-features/why-you-need-take-your-medications-prescribed-or-instructed. 2016. 

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The contents of the above article are for informational and educational purposes only. The article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified clinician with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or its treatment and do not disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking it because of information published by us.

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