Compassion, Fixing, and the Work of Caring: Reflections from a Law & Policy Consultant

By: Kate Gannon – Law & Policy Consultant, MLPB

December 20, 2022

One of the most fulfilling parts of my work at MLPB is supporting helping professionals who have answered a deep-seated call to care for others. As a Law & Policy Consultant, I have the privilege of participating in interdisciplinary team meetings where I further MLPB’s mission of spotlighting legal rights and protections that can be leveraged to increase the wellbeing of those served. Together, we engage with legal problem-solving. While I relish the highs that I have the privilege to witness, I also sit with my colleagues in the lows. Often, these lows are referred to as compassion fatigue, the burden shouldered by those who seemingly “care too much.” But perhaps it’s time to rethink this description?

Earlier this year, I attended a presentation led by Dr. Christina Bethell, Director of the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative and Professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, during the second annual HOPE Summit. Dr. Bethell planted a seed that for me has since grown into a personal maxim, “Compassion fatigue is a misnomer.” It is not the caring or the connecting that brings us down, it’s the inability to eliminate the suffering, a heavy symptom that Dr. Bethell has aptly retitled “fixing fatigue.”

Essentially, care teams are in the business of bearing witness to the suffering of others. They also are human. They feel empathy, often deeply understanding and identifying with the pain felt by those they support. By their nature, they take steps to try to alleviate some of that pain. As Dr. Bethell explained, the discomfort comes not from engaging in those compassionate acts, but from the empty feeling that remains when care team members realize they cannot eliminate the suffering, or “fix” things. It’s been described by some of my colleagues as a kind of profound powerlessness.

I want to offer my human-centered colleagues who seemingly “care too much” the same relief that Dr. Bethell gave to me: We don’t have compassion fatigue. A simple act of compassion, even just taking a moment to listen, is a human connection that is as important for the giver as it is for the receiver. (For instance, a clinical trial demonstrated that oncology patients who received just 40 seconds of compassionate physician care were significantly less anxious.1 Meanwhile, a study of medical students showed that delivering compassionate care increased overall staff wellbeing.2) However, we may have fixing fatigue, an exhaustion for which the cure is not less compassion, but leaning into compassion as both an act of kindness to the people we serve and to ourselves.

  1. Thomas MR, Dyrbye LN, Huntington JL, et al. How do distress and well-being relate to medical student empathy? A multicenter study. J Gen Intern Med. 2007;22(2):177-183. doi:10.1007/s11606-006-0039-6.
  2. Fogarty, LA, et al. Can 40 seconds of compassion reduce patient anxiety? Journal of Clinical Oncology. 1999; 17(1), 371-9.