Compassion fatigue focus of Mental Wellness Task Force


“People who provide compassionate care of others are not always compassionate to themselves,” says Cynthia Grindel, a former hospice and community health center counselor who now oversees faculty and staff assistance programs through UPMC’s Life Solutions.

Compassion fatigue is “a potential hazard for anyone who works in a helping profession or serves in a caregiving role.”

That’s why Grindel will give a talk on the subject from noon to 1 p.m. April 5 in the O’Hara Student Center dining room, sponsored by the Mental Wellness Task Force of the University Senate’s Benefits and Welfare Committee. Registration is not required for this bring-your-own brown bag event.

Compassion fatigue can hit those trained and experienced as caregivers — teachers, health care professionals, first responders — as well as those thrust into caring for family members or friends unexpectedly. Symptoms can include feeling physically or emotionally exhausted, sleeping poorly, feeling irritable, losing one’s sense of humor, or simply a decreased enjoyment of work and appreciation for the rewards of caregiving.

Even people who are drawn to caregiving roles can resent the needs of clients and family or develop a certain cynicism, she says: “When you’re constantly exposed to the pain or suffering of others, people may find it harder to see the good in the world.”

Grindel’s talk will focus on solutions to pursue during both types of caregiving situations. Reversing compassion fatigue takes a focus on self-care, she says: “When we’re actively listening and trying to empathize” with those for whom we are providing care, “we begin to experience vicariously some of their pain and some of their suffering.” Being so focused on the needs of others means we are usually not focused on our own needs — or, at the very least, we’re last on our own lists.

Practicing self-care means being self-aware, she says: “We become so accustomed to living with stress we ignore the many signs.” Some caregivers must get past the feelings of guilt or selfishness in order to focus even partly on their own needs. They should keep in mind that “when we take care of ourselves, we enable ourselves to continue to take care of other people,” she says.

Grindel will make suggestions for self-care methods to practice at work, as well as on our own. Developing, or redeveloping, compassion satisfaction also can help buffer the symptoms or frequency of compassion fatigue. Compassion satisfaction, Grindel says, is realizing the rewards and positive aspects to caregiving, despite its challenges. It puts us back in touch with the ‘why’ of our caregiving duties.

When she worked as a grief counselor, Grindel told people what she did for a living and often heard in response, “Oh, that must be so hard.” Of course, it was, she acknowledges, but “you see great love that people have for each other. There are things that nurture us as we nurture other people.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.