Compassion Fatigue in Nursing – 6 Ways to Prevent

Compassion fatigue in nursing

Compassion fatigue in nursing is a form of occupational stress which occurs when nurses develop declining empathetic ability due to repeated exposure to suffering and trauma of patients. It is one of the major issues affecting nurses all over the world.

The bad news is that nurses with compassion fatigue are unable to provide quality patient care.

While nurses do an excellent job providing empathetic, compassionate care to suffering and traumatized patients, their career takes a toll on their emotions.

With prolonged exposure to suffering and trauma, nurses potentially become less compassionate about the medical challenges their patients face.

As a result, they decline to devote as much effort and time to giving patients optimal quality of care.

Considering that this issue affects, reportedly, 16 to 39 percent of registered nurses, it is practically essential for nurses and other practitioners to know how they combat compassion fatigue, nurture, and support themselves to continue offering empathetic care.

In this regard, if you are a nurse battling declined compassionate care, this post will comprehensively discuss everything you need to understand about compassion fatigue in nursing and ways to curtail or deal with the issue.

Now that you know the basics, I highly recommend that you watch and listen to this thorough TEDx talk about compassion fatigue in nursing by Juliette Watt.

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What is compassion fatigue in nursing

What is compassion fatigue in nursing?

At its core, compassion fatigue in nursing is stress resulting from exposure to suffering and traumatized individuals on an ongoing basis.

In nursing, compassion fatigue can be described as the convergence of secondary traumatic stress and cumulative burnout associated with declined ability to cope with the hospital environment.

Sadly, all nurses are at risk for compassion fatigue.

Nurses suffering from compassion fatigue experience intense physical and emotional exhaustion along with other changes that keep them from feeling empathy towards their patients.

At an extreme, compassion fatigue can reduce nurses’ ability to rapport with co-workers and loved ones.

That said, prolonged exposure to patients during times when they are at the end stages of serious illnesses intensifies physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological distress in nurses.

This can potentially impact standards of health care, patient outcomes or cause severe mental health conditions.

Though rarely, compassion fatigue can end with some nurses leaving their profession.

See also: Why Nurses Leave the Bedside?

Most importantly, because the issue of compassion fatigue has become very prevalent among nurses and other caregivers, it is imperative to identify its symptoms and work towards overcoming the problem.

This will ensure nurses offer optimal quality patient care as well as retain their services.

Definition of compassion fatigue in nursing

Compassion fatigue is defined as a combination of physical, emotional, and spiritual weariness or depletion associated with caring for emotionally and physically suffering and traumatized patients.

The concept was initially coined in the healthcare setting as a response to the large amounts of stress associated with caregiving and occurs when nurses witness suffering, illnesses, and trauma on an ongoing basis.

Compassion fatigue is an emotionally overwhelming and unavoidable part of caregiving.

While it turns out that every nurse is prone to this phenomenon, the vulnerability to compassion fatigue can be influenced by the nurse’s personality.

Notably, in the nursing literature, compassion fatigue has been variously defined and related to burnout, secondary traumatic stress, and vicarious traumatization.

Some elites have also used the concepts interchangeably to describe the phenomenon. In this regard, it is worth noting that, while the concepts are relatable, they are different.

Signs of compassion fatigue

To comprehensively and accurately conceptualize compassion fatigue, you need to deconstruct the whole into parts, understand the signs, and then dovetail the result.

Typically, the phenomenon is characterized by exhaustion, anger, unusual irritability, and reduced ability to feel sympathy and empathy.

Most of the signs and symptoms stem from chronic stress resulting from the caregiving work that nurses have devoted to doing.

That said, here are the signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue in nursing:

  • Feeling emotionally, psychologically, and physically exhausted
  • Unusual anger, irritability, and sadness
  • Feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, helpless, and powerless
  • Self-isolation
  • Impairment of judgment and behavior
  • Depression
  • A decline in morale and constant self-blame
  • Decreased cognitive function and ability
  • Poor sleep patterns
  • Loss of hope, self-worth, and self-esteem
  • Overall reduced empathy
  • Feeling hypersensitive and insensitive when you see patients suffering
  • Feeling indifferent about spiritual identity and worldview
  • Feeling less productive
  • Reduced sense to personal and occupational accomplishment

While nurses and healthcare professionals devote a significant amount of effort and time towards giving patients empathetic, compassionate care, the cost of caring is hazardous.

If you are a nurse and recognize or suspect that you have compassion fatigue, it is a good idea to deal with the phenomenon, nurture and support yourself so you can continue providing patient care, and perform other duties.

How to prevent compassion fatigue in nursing?

If untreated, the signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue can take a toll on a nurse’s health and potentially lead to mental health conditions.

See also: Mental Health Nurse Interview Questions

That’s why it is extremely important to address these signs at the earliest possible.

Ultimately, this can aid speedy recovery or prevent the phenomenon from worsening.

Here are preventive and restorative measures critical in curtailing compassion fatigue.

1. Practice self-care

It is not uncommon for nurses and caregivers to wind up neglecting their own needs.

As a nurse, along with providing empathetic care to patients, it is vital to take quality care for yourself.

Practicing self-care can potentially prevent compassion fatigue.

Self-care makes you less prone to stress while helping you withstand many factors that may lead to compassion fatigue.

In nursing, a self-care regimen generally includes a nutritious diet, restful sleep, honoring self emotional needs, exercising regularly, meditating, and balancing work and leisure.

The idea is to avoid overworking or exposing yourself to situations that may trigger compassion fatigue.

2. Create a balance in life

This may sound obvious, but in the nursing profession, it can be tough to strike a reasonable balance in all aspects of your life.

Ideally, you need to adopt a schedule that allows you to balance your work and personal life.

After dedicating your effort and time taking care of patients, your after-work life should be a haven from emotional stressors and, certainly, a break from work.

While you may want to spend time with family and friends, it is worthwhile to make time for yourself and find something enjoyable to do.

A schedule that makes sense for your well-being should have time for you to delve into the spiritual side and enjoy outings or other things that you like.

3. Leverage employer-sponsored programs

As a nurse, it is probable that your employer understands your susceptibility to compassion fatigue. That’s why there are scheduled breaks for nurses to re-energize.

In this regard, make sure that you take a scheduled break and find a calm spot where you can meditate and recharge.

If there are any seminars devoted to stress reduction, consider attending as well.

While it is easy to put patients first, you don’t want to suffer because you were empathetic.

4. Set emotional boundaries

Nurses do a great job providing patients with much-needed compassionate care. While their service is credible, it should be overdone to the point of taking a toll on their emotions.

That’s why it is important to set emotional boundaries.

If you are a nurse or caregiver, you want to remain empathetic, compassionate, and supportive without overly taking the pain and suffering of your patients.

You want to maintain a connection with patients, but honor the fact that you also have personal needs and can be overwhelmed by constant exposure to trauma.

5. Cultivate healthy relationships with positive people outside of work

It is important to connect strongly with co-workers, but it is equally essential to connect and maintain healthy friendships with positive people, especially outside work.

Nonjudgemental friends who do not have an idea of your work can hugely impact your life by providing much-needed emotional and professional relief.

6. Encourage positive coping strategies

Alcohol and other drugs will help you drift off easily after a stressful, long day at work.

See also: Do Nurses Get Drug Tested?

The bad news is that it may reverse or compound stress in the long run.

While we all have our own ways of coping with stress and overwhelming situations, it is a good idea to embrace positive coping measures that combine humor, social support, and taking charge of your time.

What is the difference between compassion fatigue and burnout?

Oftentimes, compassion fatigue is mistaken for burnout and vice versa.

Well, while the two phenomena are loosely related and share some similar signs, it is worth noting that they are different.

Usually, burnout arises from assertiveness-goal achievement response and occurs when a nurse can’t achieve their job goals, so they end up being frustrated.

See also: SMART Goals for Nursing With Examples

Burnout is likely to lead to increased will efforts, diminishing morale, and a sense of loss of control.

In many cases, burnout exists simultaneously with compassion fatigue.

Unlike compassion fatigue, involving declined ability to feel compassion for others, burnout is all about physical and emotional exhaustion due to low job satisfaction and overwhelming situation, which doesn’t necessarily mean lost ability to provide empathetic care.

Conclusion: Compassion Fatigue in Nursing

All practicing nurses are on the verge of suffering from compassion fatigue.

Thankfully, the phenomenon can be curtailed with the right preventive measures.

Hopefully, after reading this post, you understand what compassion fatigue in nursing is and how you can keep the problem in check.

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About Ida Koivisto, BSN, RN, PHN

Ida is both a registered nurse and public health nurse. Her passion is to provide as much valuable information about nursing to the world as possible. In her spare time from work and blogging, Ida loves to work out at the gym and spend time with relatives.