During armed conflicts, emergency operations or natural disasters, humanitarian workers may be exposed to chaos and confusion, confronted with scenes of destruction and with intolerable human suffering. They may become, in turn, “secondary victims” and suffer from so-called compassion fatigue.

Factors of compassion fatigue

They are specific, though they can seem the same as for instance burnout factors:

  • Hard work sometimes to the limits of endurance
  • Less than basic accommodation, with living quarters which are either too close to their workplace or too far away, requiring long and tiring journeys in dangerous conditions
  • Basic elements for rest and personal comfort to be created from scratch
  • Contacts with supervisors that are less than satisfactory because of taxing work in tense and stressful conditions
  • Changes in the “rules of the game” at the work place, happening in an unforeseen and unplanned manner.

A typical profile

The reliefworker who is at risk will:

  • Be conscientious to the point of perfectionism. They may feel guilty and forget that the enormity of the task prevents them from “finishing” whatever they think they should do
  • Forget that frustration in the work is likely to be the norm, which may lead to a loss of their sense of humour and/or cynicism
  • Experience “survivor’s guilt”, which may taint all compassionate action, bringing with it a feeling of personal failure.

Adapting to extreme conditions

  • First, know yourself and learn to observe your feelings and attitudes before trying to control your behavior
  • Remember that you have chosen to give your time, compassion and generosity to alleviate human suffering – something you will not be able to do effectively if you were to become a “victim” yourself
  • Remember that learning how to endure and adapt to abnormal and unfamiliar situations cannot be accomplished in a day
  • Know that, deep down, we all subconsciously believe that we, or others close to us, could be victims ourselves
  • Learn to accept the intensity of your own emotions as normal, in an abnormal situation
  • Learn to understand the mechanisms of stress and their consequences. To live on a daily basis in the presence of human suffering provokes not only fatigue, but also mental confusion and fear. These signs of so-called “compassion fatigue” come very close to those of traumatic stress and PTSD symptoms.

© CHP 2014

Latest Blog Posts

Headquarters in Switzerland

CHP – Centre for Humanitarian Psychology
15, rue des Savoises
CH-1205 Genève