Compassion Fatigue: Nurses Need To Take Care of Themselves As Well As Others

January 5th, 2012


By , BSN, RN

Part of almost every New Year's resolution is some form of self care. For nurses and nursing students this is particularly important. Nurses and those learning the career that focuses on caring for others can often burn themselves out, become less productive, and unable to form bonds with their patients when their own emotional systems become overloaded. It can be exhausting being compassionate and taking in other people's suffering on a full time basis.

This condition is known as compassion fatigue. While first diagnosed in nurses caring for trauma victims back in the 1950s, it has come to attention again is the last couple of years, finally making the big time when just this week the Wall Street Journal published a story addressing how patient care is affected by caregivers who are in need of care themselves.

The focus of the article centered on how a hospital system in Missouri is offering an innovative program to help nurses combat the emotional assault they experience caring for the sick and dying. And, hospitals aren’t the only organizations to recognize the problem and start programs to address it. Researchers have studied compassion fatigue in emergency rooms, among cancer care providers, first responders and yes, even nursing students. Nursing organizations like the ANA (American Nurses Association) and even schools of nursing are starting to address the topic and suggest ways to counteract the effects.

How Do You Know?

Compassion fatigue is defined by many variables, among them:

  • Avoidance or dread of working with certain patients
  • Reduced ability to feel empathy
  • Frequent use of sick days
  • Physical symptoms including headaches, digestive problems, sleep disturbances, and muscle tension, to name a few
  • Emotional symptoms including, but not limited to, mood swings, restlessness, irritability, oversensitivity, anger, depression and anxiety

Research indicates that while one of these symptoms could validate compassion fatigue, generally it is a combination of these signs. A basic assessment by nurse mentors, nurse managers, preceptors, or even a mental health professional should be used to validate the presence of the disturbance.

What Do You Do?

Most employers, schools and universities have some kind of counseling program available. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) can be found through the human resources department. Most hospitals have pastoral care departments which can offer counseling and advice. Seeking out someone who understands the work experience, the unit and patient population in question can help. A nurse manager, charge nurse, preceptor, school advisor or clinical preceptor who understands where the nurse or student is working and the demands of the patient population can also be sources of assistance.

It is also important for nurses and nursing students to find ways to disconnect from the work. When not at work or school have other interests and take steps to keep work at work. Being proactive about health—physical, emotional, career, financial, can help keep compassion fatigue at bay. There are also support groups available through nursing organization. These can be a great way to meet others who can empathize with what is going on, just as the nurse is an empathetic source for patients and families.

Clearly, compassion fatigue is not a new problem in the world of the caregiver. What is new is more recognition for the issue and awareness on the part of employers, educational institutions and the general public. Never underestimate the compassion of others, it just may be not as obvious since it isn't part of their job description.

One Response to “Compassion Fatigue: Nurses Need To Take Care of Themselves As Well As Others”

  1. Greg Mercer, MSN Says:

    Covey called it sharpening the saw: unless you keep sharp, soon you become increasingly useless to everyone, and your work gets increasingly difficult & frustrating. The process is slow enough that many don’t notice it, although usually others’ do. For some Nurses, burnt out becomes a lifestyle. Sad, because it drags everyone else around them down, and its both avoidable and fixable, but only by the person too cynical to try.

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