The heart is a muscle. So it makes sense that like every other muscle, if the heart gets too much exercise or stress over time, it can get tired or worse, not recover. Studies show that professionals in healthcare – especially nurses – can be vulnerable to this emotional (or spiritual) exhaustion. As described below, researches sometimes call this exhaustion compassion fatigue (or unique form of burnout; or secondary traumatic stress). And like other ailments, compassion fatigue requires observation, analysis, and a plan for treatment sooner versus later. Below is a quick summary nurses can use to learn about compassion fatigue and how to manage it — both to improve work/life balance and to make sure their careers don’t suffer because of it.
Compassion Fatigue – Defined
Compassion fatigue has been defined as:
a combination of physical, emotional, and spiritual depletion associated with caring for patients in significant emotional pain and physical distress.
(Lombardo 2011, citing Anewalt 2005 and Figley 1995).
Merriam-Webster’s medical dictionary defines it as:
the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those that care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time.
Naturally, nurses confront compassion fatigue every shift, because they face life crises (alongside their patients) on a regular basis. To cope and hopefully prevent compassion fatigue, nurses benefit from identifying the symptoms (whether sudden or persistent) that make their job harder. With that knowledge, nurses can manage and maybe even overcome the heartache that is compassion fatigue.
Compassion Fatigue Symptoms
The following symptoms may be signs of compassion fatigue:
- Chronic physical and emotional exhaustion
- Feelings of inequity toward the therapeutic or caregiver relationship
- Feelings of self-contempt
- Difficulty sleeping
- Weight loss
- Poor job satisfaction
Lombardo offers a chart categorizing symptoms according to type:
Managing Compassion Fatigue
Resources online (and linked below for more details) offer a number of suggestions nurses can try to prevent, reduce, if not eliminate, compassion fatigue, almost all of which seem focused on self-care:
Self-care at work
- Find out if your workplace has any resources available – group classes, therapy, on-call counselors or staff, or a space where you can catch your breath;
- Identify a mentor, supervisor, or professional counselor to help self-assess and develop a plan;
- Request to change the work assignment or shift;
- Seek time off or reduce overtime hours;
- Attend a conference;
- Become involved in a project of interest.
Self-care at home
- Join a nurse support group;
- Take courses or read about life-learning topics: managing time, balancing a budget, caring for an elderly parent, communicating effectively;
- Eat healthily;
- Exercise, including yoga, tai chi, massage, or meditation;
- Reignite a hobby (or start one!).
Often times, a nurse meets (and cares for) persons on the worst day of their lives. It’s understandable that over time (or even on a single, especially bad day) nurses dealing with the emotional, physical, and spiritual trauma feel overwhelmed. Compassion fatigue is real and like any ailment, needs to be treated. As the above shows, it’s important to first identify the symptoms . Next, develop a plan to cope effectively — using resources at work or at home. Finally, be kind to yourself and recognize that it takes time (and practice!) to manage.
- Compassion Fatigue: A Nurse’s Primer. Lombardi, 2011.
- Medical News Today. (2010). Nurses bear cost of caring most heavily-“compassion fatigue” fast becoming healthcare provider’s worst nightmare.
- “When Nurses Catch Compassion Fatigue, Patients Suffer.” WSJ. Jan. 2012.
- Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project.