Compassion fatigue: how much is too much bad news?

As trauma, tragedy and suffering continue to dominate the headlines, is it possible for us to experience compassion fatigue?

Children who had lost relatives in an airstrike at a UN school cry.

The Israeli army concedes it fired an errant mortar round into a UN shelter in Gaza last week. (AAP)

Right now, the world is reeling from the tragic downing of  by pro-Russian separatists in . The crash killed all 298 people on board, including at least 37 Australians. 

Over in Syria and Iraq,  continue to battle for key areas in the region, forcing thousands to flee their homes. The Syrian civil war has , with the total number of at the end of 2013.

Meanwhile, the rages on in the midst of tenuous ceasefires and rising death tolls. Amongst other things, we’re also dealing with the in the virus’s 40 year history, continued attacks and kidnappings in Nigeria, , and

As trauma, tragedy and suffering continue to dominate the headlines, is it possible for the public to experience compassion fatigue?

"The more that we hear about events and suffering and trauma that pull at our proverbial heartstrings, the more likely that some of us just withdraw and no longer have that strong motivation to help," said social psychologist Dr Lisa Williams from the University of New South Wales.

"You might find that people are avoiding exposure to the news media, simply because they just don’t want to engage emotionally with it."

Compassion fatigue was first recognised as an issue arising in health care workers, such as nurses and counsellors.

"The idea is that in treating these people, these caregivers would suffer a bit of burnout," said Dr Williams.

"They no longer experience the positivity of compassion. Even though they had a desire to help these people, they didn’t actually generate any positivity out of it."

Listen to the full interview with social psychologist Dr Lisa Williams

To prevent burnout, Dr Williams said it’s healthy for individuals to be emotionally withdrawn from time to time.

"If an individual came about managing their own compassion fatigue by withdrawing from the media, that’s probably not such a bad thing… a break from it could provide perspective."

But if we’re all going through compassion fatigue, she said, that’s a different story.

"If that happens overall at a more societal level, we find that people might become less engaged in pro-social action… and of course, that’s not really an outcome that any of us will want to seek."

And with the endless news cycle and , it’s increasingly harder for people to switch off from what’s happening around the world.

"It's almost impossible to filter out the bombardment of human suffering in the context of convergent global crises and the magnification of them via the social web," said Julie Posetti, Research Fellow at the World Editors Forum in Paris.

"These events are unfolding at even greater speed and landing, un-curated, in our social media feeds. You see shocking images of a toddler's head blown off interspersed with a family member's birthday pictures," said Ms Posetti, who is also a journalism academic at the University of Wollongong.

"It's relentless. It's discombobulating."

Ms Posetti said there was evidence that people were pulling back from social media in response to the in the aftermath of MH17 and the ongoing Gaza conflict. 

"Some social media users react publicly to being inundated with horrific images and stories with raw empathy. Others beg people in their feeds to stop sharing such content. And some are choosing to switch off all together." 

The good news is: compassion isn’t finite.

"As an emotion researcher, I don’t think that emotions have a finite capacity; that once you go through your compassion tank, there’s no way to fill it up," said Dr Williams. "But it may be more a cycle that we go through."

How to avoid compassion fatigue


  • Support network. Have a strong and supportive network around you that you can debrief with, says social work lecturer Amanda Lambros from Curtin University.
  • Take a break. Journalism researcher Julie Posetti recommends tuning out from news media from time to time. "Tuning out for periods is becoming increasingly necessary - both to avoid vicarious trauma, and to prevent compassion fatigue," she said.
  • But don’t withdraw entirely. "We probably don’t want to remove ourselves from becoming informed in an attempt to avoid compassion fatigue. There are probably better ways to deal with that," said social psychologist Dr Lisa Williams. "We’re at no shortage of people or individuals, or groups or situations to care deeply about. On balance, I think the diversity is probably a good thing, as long as it doesn’t lead to an overall total withdrawal."
Have you ever felt overwhelmed or fatigued by the news and tragic global events? How are you preventing compassion fatigue? Tweet @sbsnews or comment below.

5 min read
Published 1 August 2014 at 8:58am
By Lin Taylor