Compassion Fatigue: What Is It and What Can We Do?

We’re excited to welcome Dr. Thomas Vance, BGCA’s Director of Implementation Social Services, to the ClubX Blog for the first time! He’s been on the team leading out on giving everything we do a trauma-informed lens, and you’ll be seeing more of him here in the future.

To enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens. For over 160 years, our mission at the Boys & Girls Clubs has always been to provide a world-class Club experience that assures success is within reach of every young person who enters our doors.

But what happens when the work that we do or our calling to support our youth begins to push us to work ever harder, beyond what the term “empathy” for another person may describe? How can we be more prepared to cope with the effects of working with youth who may be themselves experiencing trauma, and the emotional intensity that can come with deeply caring for those we serve?

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue includes emotional, physical, and spiritual distress in those providing care to another. It is associated with providing care for people experiencing emotional or physical pain and suffering.

There are a couple of components that are associated with compassion fatigue. One is burnout, which can arise with too much work and insufficient resources to do that work well. Burnout can result in increased symptoms of depression and anxiety, physical and emotional exhaustion, less enjoyment of work, and more agitation. Another is secondary traumatic stress, or indirect exposure to trauma by helping others. It can be experienced by anyone who works on the frontlines with youth, including youth development professionals.

Recognizing the Signs

Compassion fatigue can impact your ability to do your work or complete daily activities. There are signs that can suggest that you, or someone you know or work with, might be developing symptoms of compassion fatigue. They can include:

  • Mood swings
  • Decreased interactions with others (isolation)
  • Feelings of hopelessness or powerlessness
  • Poor self-care
  • Beginning to receive a lot of complaints about your work or attitude
  • Difficulty sleeping and nightmares
  • Physical and mental fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Blaming others for their suffering
  • Feeling less productive at work
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Tips For Managing Compassion Fatigue in Yourself

When doing the work we love most, it can sometimes be challenging to take care of ourselves, and it might even bring feelings of guilt. But we need to remind ourselves to take care of ourselves anyway. Here are some tips in managing compassion fatigue:

  • Find someone to talk to, such as a therapist or family/friends
  • Understand that feeling fatigue or burned-out is normal
  • Exercise and eat properly
  • Get enough sleep/rest
  • Take some time off
  • Develop interests or hobbies outside of work
  • Identify what’s important to you
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Tips for Managers

During a recent Coffee Chat on this very topic, we heard some great ideas from Club leaders about how they’ve helped their staff avoid the burnout that can come with compassion fatigue. Here are some highlights:

  • Vivian from Boys & Club of the Plateau said she has her staff write a note at the beginning of summer about what their hopes are for that season, then later if things are getting hard, they get a day off and she gives them their note back for encouragement.
  • At Boys & Girls Clubs of the Fox Valley, the first Friday of every month is TGIF- Training, Growth, Improvement Friday, and time is dedicated to professional development.
  • Jenn from Boys & Girls Clubs of Garden Grove emphasizes the importance of a work life balance for her staff, and includes information about triggers and stress relief in training.
  • Several Club leaders mentioned holding Daily Huddles, such as 5-10 minutes with all staff to give updates, space for staff to say what they may need during the day, quick emotional check-ins etc. These can be held at the start of the day or at the end, and maybe a longer version at the end of the week.
  • Another idea mentioned more than once is including recognition for staff when you recognize youth and in staff meetings, like building time for shout-outs into staff meetings or huddles. Jennifer Bateman, Senior Vice President of the BGCA Youth Development team, said at her Club they featured a high-five wall with photocopies of hands that youth and staff could write shout-outs in at any time. These could include messages from staff to staff, staff to youth, youth to staff, or youth to youth!
  • Consider the demographics of your staff and what they may specifically need or appreciate. For example, one Club leader mentioned that because her staff is primarily Native, an important part of their culture is cooking and eating together, so that’s something they do often. Another mentioned that her staff is mostly college students, and they need meals all the time! Find out what would be most meaningful to your staff.
  • Finally, model the strategies you use with young people with staff. Incorporate emotional check-ins, calming exercises, energy lifters, and even activities like meditative art in staff-only spaces when you can.
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As those providing support to our youth and community, we must practice prioritizing our mental and physical needs to give ourselves compassion and empathy as we continue to serve the emotional environments of others. Like the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. If we aren’t making sure that we are ok, we won’t be able to make sure our youth are ok.

Want to Learn More?

Check out these resources:

How do you cope with compassion fatigue and burnout? What are ways that you encourage your fellow Club staff? We want to hear! Contact us by commenting below, on the BGCA Youth Development Facebook page, or email

About Thomas A. Vance, Ph.D.

With over a decade of clinical experience, Thomas A. Vance, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist, scholar, and researcher specializing in interdisciplinary psychology, collaborating with unrepresented communities in using their voice through necessary skills training. He currently serves as the Director of Implementation Social Services at the Boys and Girls Club of America (BGCA), where he is the lead social services expert, overseeing youth outreach and intervention programs around trauma-informed practices and safety and planning.

Prior to his time at the BGCA, Dr. Vance completed his teaching postdoctoral psychology fellowship at The New School for Social Research, where he taught the courses “Systems of Psychotherapies” and “Multicultural Psychology”. Dr. Vance also completed his clinical and research postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC), working within the Columbia Gender Identity Program. He received his doctorate in counseling psychology from The University of Akron in 2018. Amidst other commitments, Dr. Vance serves as a member of the Presidential Task Force on Advancing Social and Emotional Development of Black Boys through Research, Advocacy, and Community Engagement, as well as the Co-Chair of the American Psychological Association (APA), Division 17 and Diversity Committee Member of APA, Division 53.

Dr. Vance’s professional experiences have centered on uplifting social justice efforts with scientific evidence, while also ensuring scientific advancements are analyzed with multicultural considerations. His expertise lies in multivariate identity development, extensively working with individuals from marginalized backgrounds. His clinical and research-based practices examine the nature of stigmatized experiences, concentrating on their implications for psychosocial functioning – such as health and self-concept – and their intersections across axes of inequality. 

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