Supporters’ burnout

For supporters

Relief work during and after a disaster can cause many stresses. Witnessing dead bodies and tragic scenes in the course of relief work, being exposed to the grief and other emotions of affected people, and feeling guilty for not responding adequately as a provider of support are some of the most common examples.


In particular, listening to stories of the bereaved is said to be extremely stressful and accompanied by feelings of helplessness and frustration, even for skillful and experienced supporters. The effort to respond sympathetically to stories of bereavement and to understand their feelings is itself known to be exhausting for supporters, which has recently been referred to by the term ‘compassion fatigue’ or ‘secondary traumatic stress’ (1995 Figlay, 1999 Herman).

This compassion fatigue is a form of burnout, which is one of secondary traumatic stress.


The way to counter compassion fatigue is to understand in advance that helping people with trauma could cause intense fatigue and helplessness, so you should try to get some rest for yourself. Get enough rest so that you don’t become overworked, and make sure you have a good personal life, including sleep, food, and relationships. Also, recognize that everyone has a limit to what they can do at work in disaster areas. It’s also a good idea to form a team and share feelings with the support of your colleagues and guidance from your supervisor.


Be aware of the distance between you and the bereaved when you provide support. Too much distance between you and the bereaved is not appropriate, but too close is not good for either the family or you. If you have difficulty maintaining a distance from the bereaved in support, talk to the people around you. Maintaining an appropriate distance will help your support last longer.


Being able to ensure your own physical and mental safety is the most important thing you can do in bereavement care.