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Burnout Versus Compassion Fatigue: What's The Difference?

Burnout and Compassion Fatigue are terms that are often thrown around in veterinary medicine. And whilst they might have similar symptoms, the two are very different.

This article aims to look into what they both are and how to combat them.


The term Burnout was coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, and used to describe the consequences of severe stress¹.

Burnout is a cumulative process whereby an increased workload and institutional stress directly impact emotional exhaustion. Impacts of Burnout emerge slowly, over an elongated period.

It can be caused by work-related attributes, including workload, poor working culture, coworker conflict, and poor management. It can often result in a lack of drive, enthusiasm, and fatigue.

A 2020 study, by the British Veterinary Association (BVA), found that three-quarters of vets are concerned about stress and Burnout in their profession as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic².

Symptoms of Burnout include:

  • Fatigue/ exhaustion

  • Feelings of hopelessness

  • Sense of failure and self-doubt

  • Alienation from job-related activities

  • An increasingly cynical and negative outlook

  • Reduced job performance

Compassion Fatigue

Although Compassion Fatigue can often be lumped into the same category as Burnout, they are slightly different concepts.

Compassion Fatigue, also referred to as ‘vicarious traumatization’ or secondary traumatization, is defined by Dr. Charles Figley (a traumatologist) as ‘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.’³.

Compassion Fatigue occurs due to exposure to trauma. It is a preoccupation with absorbing the surrounding emotional stress and trauma of others, which leads to the development of one’s own stress.

Dr. Elizabeth Strand, a clinical professor and founding director of veterinary social work at the University of Tennessee, reported that research has shown that veterinarians face ethical dilemmas three to five times per week. These regular ethical dilemmas may be primary contributors to Compassion Fatigue⁴.

Research by Jureski (2017), also found that in a study of 500 veterinary professionals, 74.73% reported that they had experienced or were experiencing Compassion Fatigue in the last year⁵.

Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue include:

  • Depression

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

  • Loss of self-worth

  • Loss of hope

  • Increased anger

  • Isolation

Similarities and Differences

So how do they compare?


Firstly, Burnout is chronic and happens gradually over time, often as a result of work-related attributes such as a lack of resources, or long shifts, whereas Compassion Fatigue is acute and has a rapid onset as a result of absorbing trauma.

The term Compassion Fatigue also refers to the impact of helping others, whereas Burnout is a term used to describe the impact of a stressful workplace.

Lastly, people who experience Compassion Fatigue, generally still value their jobs and will carry on providing care, whilst those with Burnout tend to be disengaged, which often results in poor job performance.


Although both stem from different causes, some of the signs and symptoms of Compassion Fatigue and Burnout crossover, hence the confusion between the two. Both Compassion Fatigue and Burnout can result in emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion, depression, irritability, and withdrawal.

However, whilst some of their symptoms overlap, the treatment for both differs.


Generally speaking, when Compassion Fatigue is managed early, it has a much faster and easier recovery time compared to Burnout.

Managing Burnout:

To recover from Burnout, the first step is acknowledging your situation. Once acknowledged, the next step is letting your manager know how you are feeling. Most of the time, all that is needed is a proper break from work. But whilst this is important, it’s also important to reflect on how you got burnt out in the first place. Strategies should be put in place to stop it from happening when you return to work. Recovery is a long process, with some studies suggesting it can take between 1-3 years to fully recover ⁶.

Managing Compassion Fatigue:

Similar to Burnout, acknowledgment and taking time off also help Compassion Fatigue. It is also important to find someone to talk to about how you are feeling, rest, eat well, and understand the trauma you are feeling is valid. Spending time with friends, loved ones and visiting support groups can also help manage Compassion Fatigue.

Both Burnout and Compassion Fatigue are prevalent in the veterinary profession, and whilst knowing the symptoms and treatment for both are necessary, preventions should be in place to avoid them.


1- ‘Depression: What is burnout?’,ideals%20in%20%E2%80%9Chelping%E2%80%9D%20professions.

Accessed 4 Nov. 2021

2- ‘Stress and burnout top vet concerns six months on from Covid lockdown’,British%20Veterinary%20Association%20(BVA).

Accessed 3 Nov. 2021

3- ‘Compassion fatigue in the veterinary industry – Understanding the symptoms and signs’

Accessed 3 Nov. 2021

4- ‘Moral stress the top trigger in veterinarians’ compassion fatigue’

Accessed 3 Nov. 2021

5- ‘Compassion fatigue in the veterinary industry – Understanding the symptoms and signs’

Accessed 3 Nov. 2021

6- ‘How to Recover From Burnout With 14 Exercises & Treatments’

Accessed 4 Nov. 2021

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Dec 11, 2023
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Thank you for covering these topics, needed to address these issues for school and you have delivered!

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