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Compassion fatigue is the cumulative physical, emotional and psychological effect of exposure to traumatic stories or events when working in a helping capacity, combined with the strain and stress of everyday life.
It’s important to note that compassion fatigue is different than burnout. While burnout is predictable, building over time and resulting in work dissatisfaction, compassion fatigue has a narrower focus. Someone affected by compassion fatigue may be harmed by the work they do, experiencing intrusive imagery and a change in world-view.
Compassion fatigue is also known as vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress, second hand shock and secondary stress reaction. Regardless of the term used, compassion fatigue affects those in the helping professions, including the legal profession, and is treatable. Treatment of compassion fatigue may prevent the development of a more serious disorder.
There are ways to mitigate compassion fatigue.
Lawyers, like others in the helping professions, are at risk for experiencing compassion fatigue. Lawyers in certain practice areas, such as criminal, family or juvenile law may be especially susceptible to compassion fatigue, as they are regularly exposed to human-induced trauma, and are called on to empathetically listen to victims’ stories, read reports and descriptions of traumatic events, view crime or accident scenes, and view graphic evidence of traumatic victimization. Those with high caseloads and those with a high capacity for empathy are also at risk for experiencing compassion fatigue.
Lawyer assistance programs (LAPs) are here to support lawyers, judges, students and other legal professionals who experience compassion fatigue. Contact your state or local LAP.
If you believe a colleague may be experiencing compassion fatigue, encourage him/her to seek help. Contact a LAP for additional support and resources.