Abstract: Conceptual Drift in Social Work's Definition of Compassion Fatigue (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Conceptual Drift in Social Work's Definition of Compassion Fatigue

Friday, January 13, 2023
Maryvale A, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Brian Bride, PhD, Distinguished University Professor, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA
Background & Purpose: Regardless of their area of specialization, social workers are likely to provide services to individuals, families, organizations, and/or communities who have experienced trauma. Over the past three decades, research has documented that the indirect exposure to trauma inherent in providing services to traumatized populations may negatively impact the mental health and well-being social workers. Nomenclature to describe this phenomenon includes three central terms: vicarious traumatization (VT), secondary traumatic stress (STS), and compassion fatigue (CF). Unfortunately, the literature reveals disagreement and confusion regarding the definition of these constructs. Previous conceptual analyses have focused on all three constructs simultaneously and thus examined the similarities and differences among the terms but have not examined the individual constructs independently. To this end, the purpose of present study is to conduct a scoping review focusing solely on the construct of compassion fatigue in the social work literature.

Methods: The scoping review protocol was developed using the PRISMA Extension for Scoping Reviews (PRISMA-ScR) guidelines and Arksey and O’Malley’s (2005) scoping review framework. All years of eight academic databases – Social Work Abstracts, Social Services Abstracts, Social Science Database, Sociological Abstracts, the Web of Science, PsycINFO, and PubMed were searched using the terms “compassion fatigue” and “compassion fatigue.” Google Scholar was used to supplement the search of the academic databases and improve the breadth and accuracy of the scoping review. A two-stage process with explicit inclusion and exclusion criteria was employed. At the first stage, only peer-reviewed research articles and conference proceedings were included. Other types of documents, such as dissertations and theses were excluded. During the second stage, titles and abstracts were screened to exclude duplicates, editorials, and studies using samples from other countries.

Results/Implications: One hundred and seventy-seven publications were identified and examined for their explicit or implicit definition and operationalization of compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is variously defined as: (1) synonymous with STS/VT, (2) divergent from STS/VT, (3) synonymous with burnout, or (4) encompassing both STS and burnout as a higher order construct. Implications of the continued use of differing definitions of compassion fatigue in social work research will be discussed.