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Pandemic Burnout and Compassion Fatigue

Are some in society at the low ebb of empathy and compassion for anti-vaxxers?

Key points

  • Compassion fatigue is a normal development after long-term or intense exposure to trauma.
  • Burnout is sometimes called the erosion of the soul due to its destructive path.
  • Self-care is essential to helping heal from the pain caused by the pandemic.

Whether it’s in the airport, a school board meeting, a grocery store, or your own neighborhood, it seems that the dividing line between the vaxxers and the anti-vaxxers is one of the most clear-cut divisions we’ve seen between people in recent history.

Research indicates that 2020 was a year of ups and downs and highs and lows as we tried to make the best of the no longer so very “new” normal. In fact, a Gallup poll indicated that while we hit a low regarding our subjective assessment of our wellbeing in April of 2020, and ended the year at the third-lowest level since 2009. Our experiences of stress, worry, sadness, and anger all were heading up the chart to new levels as our well-being headed in the opposite direction.

It was a long and difficult year, but making it through to summer 2021, when we believed we’d be past the worst of the pandemic, was a motivating factor for continuing to keep moving forward. Between the pandemic and the political drama, 2020 was a painful year.

There have been several recent stories about the deaths of “COVID-deniers” to COVID-19 itself in the news. Family members are left behind who are grieving, but their loss and the loss of life are minimalized and treated as a punch line to a joke. Whether “karma” is referenced or a Twitter comment about the “ultimate irony,” there is an “I told you so” reaction. However, the truths of science do suggest that refusing to follow safety protocols that minimize the risk of disease can result in infection, resulting in death.

Unfortunately, many people are now at the low ebb of empathy and compassion for others, especially those who do not see the world–or public health–in the same way. Folks who don’t believe the value of vaccines or masking are being encouraged to protect their freedom by some political players and are thereby putting the wellbeing of others at greater risk. No longer is there a sense of “we’re all in this together,” but rather a feeling of “us vs. them” that keeps the divide between the two perspectives widening and deepening.

When people liken the choice to skip the vaccine and go unmasked to choosing to smoke even if we know it contributes to cancer or to skip the seatbelt even though we know wearing one saves lives, the big “but” in the comparison is that COVID-19 is a communicable disease that doesn’t necessarily end its trajectory with one particular host–it jumps from person to person putting many more people at risk than just the one individual who is anti-vax or anti-mask.

Pandemic Anxiety and its Fallout

The loss of life to COVID-19 in the nation is an atrocity, and when we all have watched the death toll climb from a handful of deaths to over half a million, our ability to feel begins to fray. Caring and compassion for others take energy–and each of us has had our stores of emotional and mental energy depleted as we’ve all dealt with the pandemic anxiety that began in early 2020.

Our resources may be less fully stocked today than they were, even during early summer 2021 when we finally realized that we were getting past the pandemic. Now that we’ve seen that the numbers can tick back up and that virulent anti-masking/vaxxing political leaders can keep the numbers high, it can be hard to feel compassion for folks who are seemingly choosing to ignore best practices and to do what is in their own best interest for survival.

If you’ve found yourself at the end of your caring capacity, you’re normal. Compassion fatigue typically comes from exposure to trauma, and many of us may feel as if the past 18 months have been one long public health/personal wellbeing/national trauma. It may also be Pandemic Burnout, which is not trauma-related but leaves us feeling exhausted emotionally and physically and leads us to withdraw from the world. Compassion fatigue can hit us with a wallop, and we suddenly realize just how overwhelmed we feel. Burnout, however, is more of a cumulative, slow burn that slowly sucks out the enthusiasm and positive energy we felt for life.

Easing Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue and burnout both leave us feeling out-of-sorts, exhausted, doubting the meaning of what we do, and cognitively and emotionally exhausted. Compassion fatigue, however, can usually be more easily ameliorated as taking time away to recharge and refresh can help us care for ourselves so that we feel better able to return to the world of caring for others. Some self-help measures including finding a good friend or a helping professional to talk with; taking care of your body–exercising, eating right, getting enough sleep; taking time away from the job or the situation of concern (respite care for the caregiver), and finding interests that are unrelated to the area of concern to allow yourself space to let go of the worry.

Easing Pandemic Burnout

Unfortunately, burnout is more than fatigue–it’s often felt as a loss of self or loss of soul. However, self-care and a break away from the situation that has led to burnout are two key factors in helping relieve this distress. Meditation, yoga, and other mindfulness-focused activities can be especially helpful in minimizing burnout. Getting enough sleep–but not overusing sleep as an escape plan–is important, as is diet and tending to physical needs. Making sure you schedule time for creative pursuits or other forms of relaxation gives you something to look forward to and something that helps you feel there is a reason to keep moving forward.

Researchers suggest that many people are planning to re-invent their career path, and this may be a result of pandemic burnout. Burnout often leaves us feeling that we don’t care about what we once felt passionate about. Sometimes, finding a new passion can recharge and refill our emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual reserves when this feeling of emptiness is felt. Sometimes a clean break is needed to get away from the vacuum that has sucked out your life force.


If you’re feeling pandemic burnout, if you can’t muster any compassion or empathy for those suffering, and you feel that you want to lock yourself away from the world, take your feelings seriously. Reach out to a caring and concerned person or a professional helper. Life has been harder for many than it has been in our own histories, and it’s okay to be overwhelmed.

But it’s not okay to allow yourself to continue to suffer. Being human is being authentic, and being human means we’re going to hurt. Put your own needs first so that you can care for others the way you once did–when you stop caring altogether, it’s a sign that you need to amp up your concern for your own wellbeing.