Recognising compassion fatigue in the NPO workplace

James Sleight

Does this sound familiar? In between writing funding proposals and trying to keep the lights on at your NPO, you are working endless hours helping vulnerable communities. The struggle against the impact of generational trauma, poverty, and despair feels helpless, but if you don't try to help, who will? You wonder if you are really making an impact. The strain of moving from crisis to crisis is wearing on you, and you feel like giving up. You dream about working in a fancy corporate office – at least they have air-conditioning and comfortable chairs! But your heart is in the nonprofit sector, and you know you can’t move on.

You may be experiencing compassion fatigue, a term used to describe the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of helping others. While it is usually associated with “burnout” seen in first responders such as police and medical personnel, we are starting to realise that many development sector professionals have more in common with first responders than one might think. Both spend their days pouring their energy into dire situations seemingly without end, encountering the same heart-breaking circumstances day after day. And those circumstances never seem to improve, be they for a paediatric oncologist or rape crisis councillor.

Symptoms of compassion fatigue include:

  • depression and anxiety
  • sleeplessness
  • loss of productivity
  • feelings of cynicism or hopelessness
  • inability to separate your personal and professional lives
  • general fatigue
  • lack of focus
  • difficulty concentrating

What can you do?

Personal respite: While it’s harder for NPO staffers to take “wellness days” or long vacations to recharge, you can try and separate home from work. Draw boundaries. Respect the sanctity of the weekend. Find a relaxing hobby. Take a walk.

Self-care: Stay active. Get enough sleep. Eat right. In other words, make sure there is enough fuel in the tank to deal with the day-to-day work-related stress. If you don’t take care of yourself, you will not have the physical or emotional capacity to take care of anyone else.

Michelle Gislason of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services talks about radical self-care:

“We live in complex times. We need clarity of purpose and radical self-care to navigate. If our energy isn’t swelling, how can we do the healing work that is needed? Lack of self-care is a form of repression. Radical self-care is an interruption of violence against ourselves.”

Mental health awareness: A basic level of mental health literacy helps you spot signs of trouble for yourself, or your co-workers. Ensure that your organisation takes mental health seriously, and invests time and resources in taking care of its staff. Even if finances are in short supply, when staff are taking strain, allow them to at least take some time off.

Connect with each other: Feelings of isolation are a major component of depression. Schedule morale-building activities like going out to lunch, teambuilding exercises or special events. It doesn’t have to cost a lot, just make excuses for the team to spend a little time together and bond—maybe celebrate pizza Tuesdays or decorate the office for the holidays (in fact, make up your own holidays). This has been a particularly challenging aspect of remote working. Ensure that you are regularly checking in with all staff, even if Zoom meetings are the only safe way to do so.

Build a supportive work culture: NPOs might not be able to afford to offer staff mental health benefits or extended paid leave. However, a positive workplace does not have to be expensive. Check in with each other. Make sure no one feels they are doing this alone. Don’t encourage a ‘hero complex’ where staff take on more than they should. Strongly discourage working after hours and on weekends.

As Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman write in Why Nonprofits Have a Burnout Problem:

… people working in the nonprofit sector view self-care as something that gets in the way of their work serving an important cause. Self-care is seen as a guilty pleasure, a one-time or once-in-a-while feel good luxury instead of an individual and organizational necessity. It’s time to change the status quo.”

Professional intervention: In serious cases professional therapy, even trauma counselling might be needed. A physician can also help with some of the medical issues such as anxiety, depression, or insomnia.

NPOwer Helpline 

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) in partnership with Tshikululu Social Investments, recently conducted a Mental Health Support Programmes Survey to assess the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on NPOs and staff psychological well-being.

Alarmingly, this survey found that two-thirds of NPO professionals exhibited moderate to severe psychological morbidity, with two-thirds also facing an elevated risk of developing a psychiatric disorder. Over one-third of all NPO professionals were found to be exhibiting a high likelihood of having a severe psychiatric disorder by the time the survey was completed.

SADAG and Tshikululu launched a first-of-its kind NPO Mental Health Support Programme and 24-hour toll-free Helpline last October. NPOwer offers mental health care and support to all NPOs, NPO leaders, staff and volunteers, many of whom are experiencing unprecedented strain and burnout caused by COVID-19.

If you are in need of assistance, the toll-free NPOwer helpline is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year with counselling available in all 11 official languages. Call 0800 515 515 or send a dedicated SMS to 43010. You can also email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or go to www.npowersa.org for more information.

Sources and further reading

James Sleight

James Sleight manages study abroad and internship programmes for universities in the United States. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if your nonprofit is interested in hosting virtual or in-person international interns. 

Other resources

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