Overcoming Compassion Fatigue

Michael Zigarelli

From: Faith at Work: Overcoming the Obstacles to Being Like Christ in the Workplace, © Moody Press, 2000. Used by permission.

At 6:30 one spring morning, my four-year-old son Michael proudly marched out to the front lawn to retrieve the morning paper. It was his new job and he did it flawlessly. Walk to the end of the path, pick up the paper, bring it back. No problem, right? Well, this particular morning he decided to insert another step. Through the window I watched him pick up the paper and then look to the sky. He stared upward and remained motionless for about 60 seconds.

Seldom had anything other than Barney the Dinosaur held his attention that long, so I went out to see it for myself. There in the sky, slightly south of our home, were three news helicopters, hovering over the railroad tracks. They were documenting a tragedy – a tragedy that happened only 500 yards from my house, but made headlines around the world.

Four hours earlier that morning, a terrified conductor of an Amtrak train hit the horn and pulled the emergency brake. I didn’t hear it but the 30-second screech woke one of my neighbors, whose property was closer to the tracks than was mine. She would later tell the local newspaper: “at night, you don’t hear train whistles unless there’s something on the track.” Something was – or more correctly, someone. Julia Toledo was a 47-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant and mother of four sons. All of them stood in the pathway of the train. All of them were struck at 71 miles per hour. The train engineer would later say that as he approached, three of the boys and their mother were on the south side of the tracks and the smallest son was on the north. Julia ran to save her baby and all of her other sons followed in a panic.

Firefighters reported that the accident scene was horrific. Julia and three of the boys, ages 3, 6, and 11, were killed instantly. The ten-year-old brother, Jose, arrived at Bridgeport Hospital in a coma, only to succumb two days later. Lying amid the shattered bodies were school backpacks, a small tennis shoe and a Sesame Street figurine.

The tragedy shook our Connecticut community to its core. It made no sense at all. What in the world was this family doing on the tracks at that hour? Where could they possibly be going? To this day people can only speculate. Some things about Julia we did learn, however.

Julia spent a lot of time at Caroline House, an education center for immigrant women run by Catholic nuns. Her youngest son Pedro would play in the day-care area while his mother learned English. According to Sister Brenda Lynch, Julia was much more than just a student. She recalled for the media the recent Caroline House Christmas party where Julia promised to bring a turkey, even though she had no money to do so. When she missed two classes in a row before the party, many assumed that Julia wouldn’t be coming. The party began without her. Then one woman, peering through a window, spotted Julia on the street walking toward Caroline House with a large turkey balanced on a platter. She wore a triumphant smile and her sons marched in step behind her.

This was typical of Julia. When Valentine’s Day rolled around, the nuns were perplexed when Julia inquired about how to order flowers. Still, they gave her the information. To their surprise, the nuns later received a bouquet of carnations with a note expressing Julia’s love and gratitude.

To support her family, Julia worked as a custodian at Fairfield University – my employer at the time. She covered the 4 p.m. to midnight shift, necessitating a lot of baby-sitting. Sister Maureen Fleming recalled that the baby-sitting became a hopeless problem. In fact, for a full week before the accident, Julia simply did not show up for work because she had no one to care for her children.

Compounding this, Julia’s ex-husband was allegedly menacing her and threatening to take the children back to Ecuador. This might have been why she fled. She also was having problems with her landlord and was forced into a transitional YMCA housing shelter. But why the train tracks? The best explanation I heard was from Sister Bernadette who told me that in the mountain towns of Ecuador, where Julia had lived almost her entire life, it’s common for travelers to walk along train tracks since the tracks are typically the flattest and most direct route.

I also talked with Julia’s co-workers. They were my co-workers, too. Those who knew her well were as stunned by the tragedy as I was. Some knew Julia was having difficulties, but none seemed to grasp the magnitude of those problems until it was too late.

I sat with all of these people at the funeral. It was a very foreign venue for me – a Mormon church, a Spanish service, flanked by janitors and nuns. I couldn’t understand a word that was said from the pulpit, but the facial expressions, the uncontrollable sobs, the prolonged hugs required no translator. At the front of the room were three caskets. It was a poignant reminder of the family’s poverty. They couldn’t afford individual caskets, so Julia was buried with her three-year-old, the two middle sons lay together, and the oldest lay alone. On the exterior of the caskets were personal messages written in indelible marker at the wake. That, too, seemed fitting. Friends, family, classmates, and even strangers wrote of the indelible impression the victims had made on their own lives. They wrote about love. They wrote about laughter. They wrote about God. They said their good-byes.

Perhaps most moving were the large photos of five bright, smiling faces near the caskets. Midway through the service, a young boy cried and his father carried him out. Everyone seemed to be thinking the same thing: a week ago the Toledo boys were just as boisterous. Dozens of heads turned toward those photos.

I left that place shaken, thinking about the power each one of us has to affect the lives of our co-workers. I was also struck by a cold reality about Julia’s workplace. Julia – a person in dire need – worked around thousands of people who identify themselves as Christian. She worked in a Christian school whose mission is: “to foster ethical and religious values and a sense of social responsibility.” She worked everyday around well-paid Christian employees and well-to-do Christian students. But no one there had any more than a superficial relationship with her. No one seemed to know of her need. All it would have taken was for one of these Christians to go beyond “hello,” to ask Julia about herself, to inquire about her kids, maybe to ask about how a single mother could raise such a large family on $7.50 an hour and no benefits in southern Connecticut. And then perhaps to go the extra mile and help her out.

All it would have taken was one person. One follower of Jesus Christ. How sobering, that seemed. How contrary to God’s will.

Serving others’ needs is a central pillar of the Christian faith. Jesus summarizes this succinctly in the fifth Beatitude. When He taught “Blessed are the merciful”¦,” He encouraged us to care about each other. To look out for one another. To be especially attentive when someone might be hurting.

Beyond this, His instruction is to take action when someone needs assistance. We know that because the Greek underlying the word “merciful” in verse 7 is best translated as an active compassion – a compassion that entails deeds, not just pity. In simplest terms, the “merciful” are those who care about others enough to help carry their burdens.

So how could Julia be alone while surrounded at work by Christians?

The answer largely has to do with the nature of the workplace. When we’re with family, neighbors or fellow church members, caring about people and lending a hand often comes naturally for many of us. But even the most committed Christians – a person who may genuinely embrace the notion of treating his job as a ministry – will have trouble maintaining a caring attitude in the workplace. It’s not that he never cared. He may have. It’s not that he’s unaware that mercy is a Christian virtue. He is. It’s just that the pressures of the modern workplace have afflicted him with something called “compassion fatigue.”

Allow me to tap for you some of the psychological research to explain this common ailment and to suggest how you can beat it.


Why Don’t I Care About My Co-Workers and Customers Anymore?

This is a well-worn question for workplace researchers. They’ve found that if you don’t care as much about the people around you at work as you used to, you may suffer from “compassion fatigue” – a common stress that is a cousin of burnout. In simplest terms, it means just what the term implies: that you’ve grown tired of caring. You’re depleted. You don’t have anything left for anybody else.

The academic research tells us that a lot of things can contribute to this condition. Some of these things are obvious, others may be a bit of a revelation. The top five symptoms are:

  1. Too many hours of work (Researchers call this “quantitative role overload.” Most people call it “too much work to do.”)
  2. Working for an unpleasant boss (I told you some were obvious)
  3. Performing work that requires skills that you don’t currently have
  4. Performing work that requires you to deal with other people’s problems all day long
  5. A mismatch of your values with the organization’s values

Any red flags for you? Maybe several? Then read on, my friend.

What’s interesting about this line of research is that although it derives from a secular literature, it gives us tremendous insight into why many Christians struggle with caring about people at work. Take the first one – you may be working too many hours. According to the Economic Policy Institute, on average we’re now working more than 120 hours longer per year than we were in 1979 – a full three weeks more per year! If you’re contributing to this upward trend, beware. Too much work crowds out one’s willingness and ability to care about co-workers’ and customers’ needs. That’s a bit of a no-brainer.

So is number two on the list: working for an unpleasant boss. As you may know, there’s no shortage of this species in the jungle. One boss in San Francisco asked his secretary to go to a local bar and “beep him” if she saw someone he might be attracted to. Another sent his secretary out in a blizzard to get him lunch and then later commented that the weather was “unfit for human beings.” Third place goes to the boss who demanded that a subordinate check his head for lice. Then he compelled her to buy and apply the appropriate medication for him! True stories. I can’t make up stuff like this.

It’s hard to overstate the emotional drain that an unfair or overbearing boss can have on a subordinate. Every area of one’s life – from work to family to personal time to sleep – can be adversely affected by him or her. It’s no wonder, then, that such a situation creates “compassion fatigue.” It erodes our capacity to care about other people’s problems since we have too many of our own to worry about.

Numbers three and four on the list might be less obvious pitfalls, but the research conclusions are pretty clear. People who regularly perform duties beyond their comfort zone of capability and people who are constantly addressing other people’s problems (e.g., nurses, social workers, pastors, customer service representatives) can easily become overwhelmed. A frequent consequence is callousness toward co-workers and customers.

Lastly, look at number five. It’s a huge canker sore for Christians working in secular environments. Are you ever pressured or directed to perform a task that offends your values? Do you work in an environment where gossip, office politics, or backstabbing is the norm? Do you ever have to compromise your ethics to make a sale – or keep a friend? If such things are typical of where you work, you’ve probably experienced a “mismatch” between your values and the values of your corporate culture. And according to Christina Maslach, a leading academic authority on the subject, this mismatch may be the primary contributing factor to compassion fatigue. When you swim against the current of the corporate culture on a daily basis, you are in jeopardy of becoming jaded, debilitated, and ultimately deaf to the concerns of others.

The bottom line here is that any of these five factors can lead to compassion fatigue – the exhausting feeling that all of your emotional resources are used up. And once you’re afflicted, say two decades worth of studies, what often follows is something called “depersonalization.” In plain English, we begin to withdraw from the people around us. We reduce the frequency of our interaction with co-workers and customers. We have less tolerance for people and experience more moodiness and impatience. We become less merciful, even indifferent.

Sound familiar? Sorry to tell you, but there’s even more bad news: The research further demonstrates that your workplace-induced “depersonalization” will also spillover into your family and other personal relationships.

So if you’re asking yourself “why don’t I care as much about my co-workers and my customers as I should?” it may be explained in part by going back through that five item list and checking off the factors that apply to you. Are you doing too much? Are you constantly rushing from task to task? Are you regularly in over your head, undertaking work well beyond your expertise? Is it just your boss? Or is it the whole corporate culture shaping you in its secular, inhospitable image?

Whatever the reason(s), if you’ve grown tired of caring about the people around you at work, you need to address it. Don’t wait. Your response will make a difference. You see, the Julia Toledo’s of this world are in almost every workplace. They are people with kids and aging parents, people with financial troubles, people with relationship problems, people barely keeping their physical or emotional health afloat. They are people of all socio-economic classes, of all races, of both genders. Not everyone’s trial is a life-or-death situation, of course, but each of these people needs the love of Christ shown to him or her in a tangible way.

That’s where you and I come in. We believers stand in that gap, tithing our time and energy. That pleases God. “Blessed are the merciful,” says His Son, “for they will be shown mercy.” If you think that compassion fatigue may be a problem for you, it’s time to seek a solution.


Overcoming Compassion Fatigue

Many of the same doctors (in one sense of the word) who have identified the causes of compassion fatigue have also tried to figure out a cure. One of their conclusions is that you should get away from work for awhile. Now, you don’t need a doctorate to reach that conclusion. It’s common sense, right? If your batteries are low, you need to recharge them. But the question is how long do they stay charged? For how long does the vacation alleviate your compassion fatigue? Here’s where these studies become very helpful.

Does the relief last for years? No. Months? Uh-uh. Weeks? Closer. Try days. The research indicates that the beneficial effects of some respite from work will fade very quickly. In particular, our best estimates show that relief from compassion fatigue and job stress in general begin to wane after a mere three days back at work. By day 21, whatever relief we experienced is expected to be gone completely! Not good news for someone trying to remain merciful.

So how about some other strategies? Besides time off, the other “solutions” advanced by business scholars generally revolve around addressing the causes of compassion fatigue listed earlier (e.g., reduction in your workload, get another boss, get another job). The problem with these approaches is that we have no real evidence that any of these things actually works in the long-term either. Before we know it, the fatigue problems of the old situation may resurface in the new one. Square-one syndrome.

It’s not hopeless, though. Often, it seems that Scripture goes where academic research cannot. This is a classic case. If you want a lasting solution for your compassion fatigue – if you want to overcome your weariness for caring about others – don’t just look to vacations, to weekends, or to a new job to renew you. Look to God to renew you. In Isaiah we read that God “gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength”¦” (Isaiah 40: 29-31a). It’s a timeless message. Isaiah underscores a pervasive Biblical theme: when you are fatigued, when you don’t care, when you feel like you can’t give anymore than you’re already giving, stop and ask God for help. Don’t try to do it alone. God has endless strength, you don’t. So ask Him for the sensitivity to care. Do you really think that He’ll deny that sort of request? Do you really think He’d send His Son to teach: “Blessed are the merciful” and then ignore us when we ask for a more merciful heart?

He won’t. The solution for compassion fatigue – the only solution whose effects will not fade after three days or three weeks – is to regularly tap into the power of the Holy Spirit. Pray regularly that He will work through you on the job. Pray daily for those around you at work. Pray that you’ll continue to care about them. Pray for the discernment to identify their pain. And pray for the energy and the wisdom to attend to it.

That prayer doesn’t take much time each morning. “Lord, help me to care about the people around me at work today. Give me a merciful heart.” What was that? 4.8 seconds? At that rate, you may even find the time to pray that two or three times in your workday. Devote more if you can, but a few sincere seconds, when practiced habitually, is really all that it takes. No fancy research conclusions. No large-sample studies or correlation tables. Just God’s empowerment.

That’s not to say that the time off recommended by these studies is unnecessary, mind you. It’s both deserved and healthy. (Let’s give credit where it’s really due, though. It was God Himself who came up with that innovation: “Six days you shall labor and do all of your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it, you shall not do any work”¦” (Ex. 20:8-9)). But it is to say that a cure for compassion fatigue is available regardless of how many vacation days you have left.

The hallmark of a Christian is care. Mercy. Compassion. There’s a lot at stake here – and not just for others. Without mercy, Christ-likeness is impossible. With it, it’s inevitable.



Do you care about the people around you at work? Do you really care? If you don’t, they’ll know. We can’t hide this for very long. It shows up in everything from the amount of time we invest in them to our willingness to listen actively when they speak to the way we say “hello” in the morning. When we’re not genuine, it’s transparent – and as people see through us, they seldom see Jesus Christ.

If you’re struggling to be merciful at work, go back through that five-item list above. Try to address the items that might be stumbling blocks to your compassion. And most of all, make time each work day to pray for a merciful heart and for the people around whom God has placed you.


For further information, see:

Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter, The truth about burnout, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, 1997.

Cynthia L. Cordes and Thomas W. Dougherty, “”A review and integration of research on job burnout,” Academy of Management Review, Vol. 18, Number 4 (October 1993), pp. 621-636.

From: Faith at Work: Overcoming the Obstacles to Being Like Christ in the Workplace, © Moody Press, 2000. Used by permission.

Michael Zigarelli, Ph.D., is a Professor of Leadership and Strategy at Messiah College and the editor of the Christianity9to5.org.