Burnout and compassion fatigue

Burnout and compassion fatigue are very common problems in the ambulance community. In this fact file, we’ll cover the difference between these two states, as well as their symptoms and how you can help yourself or someone else suffering from burnout or compassion fatigue.


Burnout and compassion fatigue in the ambulance community


It’s very common to hear people in the ambulance services talk about being ‘burned out’, however burnout isn’t a mental health condition, but a collection of symptoms for emotional, physical and mental exhaustion. The symptoms are caused by excessive and prolonged stress, and feeling overwhelmed or emotionally drained.

Not all stress is bad, in some situations it can be very useful, but long-term stress can harm your mental and physical health and lead to things like anxiety, ulcers, and cardiovascular disease. Studies suggest that burnout of ambulance staff could be due to:

  • Lack of administrative support
  • Long hours and shift work
  • Poor home/work life balance
  • Pressure to meet targets
  • An imbalance between the care they want to give and the care they are able to give
  • Abuses of the service and staff

Symptoms of burnout

Burnout is made up of three elements: exhaustion, mental detachment from your job, and poorer performance at work. Common symptoms include:

  • Feeling tired or drained
  • Feeling helpless, trapped or defeated
  • Feeling detached or alone
  • Having a negative outlook
  • Having a sense of failure or self-doubt
  • Loss of motivation
  • Procrastinating and taking longer to get things done
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment
  • Headaches
  • Stomach aches
  • Insomnia

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Compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue occurs when burnout is combined with the physical, emotional and psychological impact of helping others who are or have experienced trauma.

Due to the high demands of their work, and the difficult jobs they attend daily, ambulance staff are at a much higher risk of developing compassion fatigue. Symptoms include:

  • Exhaustion
  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Negative coping behaviours such as substance misuse
  • Inability to feel sympathy and empathy
  • Less enjoyment or satisfaction with work
  • More absent from work
  • Unable to make decisions and care for patients
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Headaches
  • Poor work life balance

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When to seek help

Early signs of pre-burnout can sometimes be mistaken for depression. Unlike depression, burnout can’t be treated with medication, but it’s still important to seek advice from a trained medical professional who will be able to diagnose you.

As part of TASC’s mental health services, we can provide a range of support for people struggling from stress and burnout including talking therapies, online wellbeing support and advice on coping mechanisms and relaxation techniques. To learn more about our mental health services and eligibility criteria, visit our mental health webpage. Alternatively, you can email support@theasc.org.uk or send us a message.

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Four tips to help yourself

1. Create a plan

The main treatment for burnout is lifestyle changes. One of the easiest things you can do is put a plan together to break up your day and make sure you have enough time to rest, eat healthy meals, and have time to yourself to de-stress and focus on your wellbeing.

Many people find having some non-work-related activity to look forward to can really help. For example, you could:

Arrange with your partner to have 30minutes quiet time to yourself as soon as you come in from work to decompress.

Plan a night-in with a friend or loved one once a month.

Take the kids to the park after school.

Arrange time to phone or video chat a friend you haven’t seen in a while.

2. Learn to say no

Sometimes life can feel overwhelming, and you just need everything to slow down for a while. When this happens, it’s important to know how to say no to any invitations or requests for help so you don’t spread yourself too thin.

Learning to say no isn’t easy at first but over time, and with practice, it does become  easier. For example, you could say:

‘Thank you, I appreciate the offer, but I am unable to make the time at the moment.’

‘I do not have any availability now.’

‘I cannot help this time, maybe next time.’

Remember, you don’t have to justify your decision or offer up any excuses.

3. Make healthy food choices

Nutrition plays such a big part in how we feel throughout the day and in the long term. Consuming food and drinks high in sugar or caffeine may give you a boost at the start, but you may end up crashing and feeling worse.

Try to eat at least one starchy carbohydrate at each meal e.g. plain porridge with fruit for breakfast, a baked potato at lunch and wholewheat pasta for dinner

Eat at least 5 fruits and veg a day. They don’t need to be fresh – canned or frozen works too! Why not try adding some fruit and oats to a yoghurt for breakfast or changing your mid-morning snack for an apple or pear?

Fish is a good source of protein and contains many vitamins and minerals. Aim to eat at least two portions of fish a week, including at least one portion of oily fish.

For more advice on how to eat healthily, visit the NHS website. TASC’s Rightsteps platform also has a free module on healthy eating. Click here to take a look.

4. Create a sleep-friendly bedroom

Sleep is incredibly important for our mental, physical and emotional health.

For those working in the ambulance service, sleep can be difficult due to the nature of shift work. So, try and make your bedroom a comfortable sleeping place no matter what time of the day it is:

Keep your bedroom dark with well-fitted blackout blinds or curtains

Make sure your bed is comfortable and not too warm. For those who don’t like to be too hot in bed, try and use a couple of sheets rather than a duvet

Using earplugs or a white noise machine can help dull noise when you need to sleep during the day

Screens produce blue light which can keep you awake, so ideally you should avoid all screens for half an hour before bed. This isn’t always possible, so if you need to use your mobile phone, try installing a blue light filter app.

For more advice on getting a good night’s sleep, visit the NHS website or TASC’s Rightsteps platform.

Four tips to help someone else

1. Start the conversation

Sometimes it’s much more obvious to someone on the outside that you’re struggling. If you’re worried that someone is suffering from burnout, make sure to check in with them and ask them how they are. You may find they don’t want to talk. If this happens, remind them that they are not alone and that you’re here to listen if they need to talk or vent.

2. Make sure they’re using all their annual leave

When things are busy at work, it can seem impossible to take time off, but having some time away to relax or focus on their homelife and wellbeing, can be exactly what they need. If someone seems stressed, encourage them to take a break – even just a day  off can make a big difference to their mood.

3. Don’t assume you know what they need

Everyone responds to stress differently. Some people need to take time away to relax, others like to press through a busy period and then then decompress at the end. If your loved one is stressed or experiencing the symptoms of burnout, ask them what you can do to help them and then come up with a plan together.

4. Remind them about the support they have available

If your loved one is struggling, it’s important to remind them that they’re not alone and that they have a range of support available to help them, such as:

You, their family and friends who can provide a listening ear and a place to vent if they need it

Their employer. These days, most employers provide a range of wellbeing support, especially mental health support, for their staff members. Your loved one should be able to learn more about their employer’s offers by contacting their HR department.

Qualified counsellors. If your loved one is particularly struggling, they could speak to an expert in mental health for advice and guidance. Counsellors are available privately or through an NHS referral.

TASC. We’re passionate about supporting the mental health of the UK’s ambulance communities and can provide support ranging from talking therapies and counselling to advice on coping mechanisms and online wellbeing guidance.

Other organisations and charities. There are a range of organisations and charities who provide support for stress, burnout and general mental health including Mind, SANE and Rethink.

More than three-quarters of UK workers have experienced burnout.

(Wickens, 2022)

How you can support TASC’s cause

This page was last updated in April 2022.

  1. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. 2016. Compassion Fatigue among Healthcare, Emergency and Community Service Workers: A Systematic Review.  [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4924075/> [Accessed 7 August 2021]
  2. Wickens, Z., 2022. 79% of UK staff have gone through burnout. [online] Employee Benefits. Available at: <https://employeebenefits.co.uk/79-uk-staff-gone-through-burnout/#:~:text=More%20than%20three%2Dquarters%20(79,levels%2C%20according%20to%20new%20research.> [Accessed 15 March 2022].