Caregiver Stress, Burnout and Compassion Fatigue: Causes


Stress, burnout and compassion fatigue creeps very stealthily on many family caregivers.  So focussed on caring for a loved one who is ailing, disabled or who has an alcohol/substance addiction, many neglect their own physical and mental health. Caregivers often experience high levels of stress but, acknowledging and giving voice to it does not come easy.  Sounds familiar? This is because as a caregiver you may not understand the range of emotions you through and it follows suit that you may not recognise the signs of stress, burnout or fatigue that have been creeping on you stealthily. Additionally, admitting that you are stressed out, burnt out or even fatigued can trigger a sense of failure, inadequacy and caregiver guilt. Sometimes our social and cultural norms may also shape expression or non-expression of what we are going through.


Often times, caregivers are juggling so many things, expected and unexpected, they burn both ends of the candle. Although some people cope better with being caregivers than others, all caregivers are at risk of burnout and fatigue. It takes many caregivers 2 years to recognise that they have a role that has unique needs. By this time, it is likely to find you have progressed to the extreme end of the stress continuum, compassion fatigue. If the overwhelming nature of taking care of others is not recognised, it becomes harmful both to you as a caregiver and to your care recipients.


Some of the contributors to caregiver stress, burnout and compassion fatigue include:


·         Constant physical and emotional demands of caregiving.

·         The strain of the financial and other resources needed to provide care.

·         Frustration by overwhelming care needs for which family caregivers are not trained. These could be activities of daily living (ADLs) or instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs). ADLs include bathing, toileting, brushing teeth, dressing/undressing, getting in and out of bed, getting on and off wheel chairs amongst others.  IADLs include giving medication as prescribed, shopping for groceries, transport, housework and using technology.

·         Disappointment or weariness because the condition of your family member is not improving or is deteriorating.

·         Difficulty accepting that the quality of your care and effort may have nothing to do with decline in the health or the mood of the care recipient.

·         Unrealistic expectations of yourself and reluctance to ask for help.

·         Family dynamics and conflict.

·         Unrealistic expectations of the caregiver from others.

·         Loss, grief and depression – the caregiving journey is marked by many different losses that left unprocessed result in depression.

·         The caregiving role obscures the relationship you have with your care recipient which may be spouse, child, sibling, parent, grandparent, grandchild or friend.

 These and other causes can result in a despairing mix of physical and emotional exhaustion that strikes many caregivers at one point or another. It is therefore important to know the signs of caregiver stress, burnout and compassion fatigue and how to practice self-care.