What Does Compassion Fatigue Look Like in Cross-Cultural Work?

Nov 3, 2022 | 0 comments

(If you are in a creative access country, use a vpn for the links in this post.)

As I mentioned in the first article of this 4-part series, compassion fatigue affects empathetic people who are in helping professions (sound familiar?). That would include nurses, teachers, counselors, first responders, caregivers, pastors, and in our case, global workers. It’s important to remember that this is a normal byproduct of being in a job that is all about helping others. 

As Sarita Hartz wisely said, “Compassion fatigue is a normal consequence of the work that we do, and there is nothing shameful or abnormal in us succumbing to it.” (link below)

There are many reasons why compassion fatigue happens. Here are some of the ones that I found in my research. As you read over this list, make a mental note of the ones you’re experiencing:

—People don’t do what you suggest

—You don’t have enough time to do the things that need to be done

—You aren’t praying regularly 

—You have too many things to do

—You are asked to do things way outside of your job description

—You work through meals

—You don’t spend time with friends, your spouse, or your children

—You are in a toxic workplace

—You don’t delegate

—You have little or no outside interests 

—You have to do tasks even though no one told you how to do them

—You don’t sleep enough

—You have unrealistic demands from leadership and/or co-workers

—You aren’t meditating on God’s Word

—You disagree with how people are doing things

—You aren’t taking breaks throughout the day

—You live with a sense of guilt 

—You don’t exercise

—You don’t have a hobby

—You have unrealistic expectations of yourself

How many rang true for you? As you can see from the list above, it would be easy to feel fatigued if these things are realities in your daily life! This list isn’t meant to make you feel bad or guilty in some way or point fingers at your organization, but rather to bring awareness to the topic.

In his writing on compassion fatigue, Ronald Koteskey gave these insightful statements, “The major causes of compassion fatigue are not having time to do what needs to be done while serving others who suffer from many sources of traumatic stress… [Cross-cultural workers] try to get more time by eliminating things that would help them cope [for example, prayer, Bible reading, taking breaks, time with family & friends, exercise, sleep, or hobbies]…Everyone has exactly 24 hours in every day and each person has to decide how he or she is going to use that time. [Cross-cultural workers] who spend all of their time doing ‘God’s work’ should remember that going beyond a certain point, the harder they work, the less they accomplish.”

Before we look at common symptoms of compassion fatigue, I want to mention something about unrealistic expectations from my own cross-cultural experience. When I went overseas, I was wearing rose-colored glasses. I thought I could handle everything, would be able to work 24/7 and not be bothered by feelings of inadequacy. It didn’t take long to realize that I wasn’t sprinkled with magical fairy dust on the airplane! I hadn’t become someone super-human or super-spiritual, just because I crossed an ocean. I was just me, living in a new place. 

After I was introduced to the concept of compassion fatigue and how it affects all people in similar work, the lights really started to come on. I realized that I could take time for my own needs. I didn’t need to live up to some unrealistic picture of who I thought I was supposed to be. I stopped comparing myself with others. I started to relax and spend quality time with God, my family, and my friends. Putting margin back into my life made all the difference as I moved forward. I’m hopeful you are starting to see those connections, too.

Now that you can see some of the reasons why compassion fatigue happens, let’s look at some of its common symptoms. Someone may not experience all of these at the same time, but may have one or more. It is important to remember that these are normal things that happen to everyone whose goal is to help others. They are not unique to those of us in cross-cultural work.  They have nothing to do with our spiritual walk, but occur because we are human beings. 

Common symptoms of compassion fatigue include*:

—Feelings of depression and hopelessness

—Lack of joy

—No sense of accomplishment

—Blaming others

—Complaining about co-workers

—No separation between your personal and professional life

—Loss of interest in helping others

—Irritable with others

—Angry about your situation and/or ministry

—Trouble sleeping and/or nightmares

—Startled by unexpected sounds

—Having intrusive, frightening thoughts

You may have experienced some of these symptoms or seen them in others. If you have, I encourage you to come back for my next article. I will be sharing practical ideas to help you combat the effects of compassion fatigue and prevent it from happening again! 

*Information taken from these resources:

The Trauma Training 101-104 was geared towards trauma in adults. Trauma Training 201 will equip you to understand and know how to respond to trauma that children experience. This workshop covers the basics of how trauma impacts a child and how you can be a part of a child’s healing.  Get the workshop today on behalf of the children in your life.

Photo by V Srinivasan on Unsplash

Terri Harmon

Cross-Cultural Consultant in Education. Wife & Mother. Mentor. Teacher.




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