In nursing, compassion fatigue means that a nurse has gradually become less compassionate about the medical challenges his or her patients face. Compassion fatigue in healthcare settings is actually quite common with some studies reporting that 7.3% to 40% of study respondents suffered from the condition.
There’s no doubt that healthcare professionals devote a significant amount of effort and time toward giving patients optimal quality of care, so it’s important to look at both sides of the fence when trying to understand compassion fatigue in nursing, including what it is and why it happens.
What is compassion fatigue?
Those suffering from compassion fatigue tend to experience intense physical and emotional exhaustion along with major changes in their ability to feel empathy toward the patients they treat. For some of those suffering from compassion fatigue, it results in an inability to feel empathy toward co-workers and loved ones, as well.
Why does compassion fatigue occur among nurses?
Compassion Fatigue has been described as the “cost of caring” for others in emotional and physical pain.(Figley, 1982)
Because of the occupational challenges faced, it’s usually simple to pinpoint the “cost of care” endured by nurses as they go through their shifts striving to provide first-class care to each and every patient they treat.
Some of the culprits of the “cost of care/compassion fatigue” that nurses endure on a daily basis include:
- Heavy caseloads
- Stressful work environments
- Risk of being assaulted/abused by patients
- Dwindling resources
- Many nurses are underpaid
What is the difference between burnout and compassion fatigue?
To understand compassion fatigue, it’s helpful to understand the difference between it and a couple of other similar terms.
According to Tend Academy, compassion fatigue is different from vicarious trauma in that the latter “was coined by Pearlman & Saakvitne (1995) to describe the profound shift in worldview that occurs in helping professionals when they work with clients who have experienced trauma. Helpers notice that their fundamental beliefs about the world are altered and possibly damaged by being repeatedly exposed to traumatic material.”
Tend Academy says the difference between compassion fatigue and burnout stems from the latter occurring due to “physical and emotional exhaustion that workers can experience when they have low job satisfaction and feel powerless and overwhelmed at work. However, burnout does not necessarily mean that our view of the world has been damaged, or that we have lost the ability to feel compassion for others.”
What are the downsides of compassion fatigue?
Compassion fatigue impacts not only nurses but, of course, the patients they treat. In fact, compassion fatigue in nursing is an occupational hazard that should be promptly dealt with when suspected and/or recognized. Unfortunately, because it’s an occupational hazard, this also means nearly every nurse will develop some degree of it.
Patients usually receive lower levels of quality of care when treated by nurses with compassion fatigue, which in some situations, can be a matter of life or death.
[More: Alarm fatigue in nursing]
How to recognize compassion fatigue in yourself
It’s crucial that as a nurse, one understands how to recognize compassion fatigue not only in themselves but those they work with. There are many signs to look for when pinpointing whether you or someone else has compassion fatigue:
- Extreme exhaustion on a regular or daily basis
- Increased anger and irritability
- Diminished sense of self-worth
- Lower levels of job satisfaction
- Reduced ability to feel empathy
- Disruption of world view; irrational fears and extreme anxiety
- Impaired ability to make well-informed decisions
- Difficulty separating work and personal lives
- Dread going to work
- Increase in work absences and showing up late
- Failure to commit to any overtime when asked multiple times
How to deal with compassion fatigue
If you or a nurse you know suffers from compassion fatigue, you can take comfort in knowing it is a treatable and manageable condition. Treating it starts with recognizing it and admitting it is a real condition. From here, you can then start with pinpointing why it is occurring.
From an organizational standpoint, it’s imperative to make it clear and well-known throughout all departments that compassion fatigue in nursing is real. By making it common knowledge that compassion fatigue is a real condition, it then becomes easier to develop a supportive work environment that encourages realistic workloads for each nurse, proper debriefing strategies, sufficient number of mental health days, collaborative peer support, and more.
The cornerstone to dealing with compassion fatigue from a personal standpoint is to provide yourself with improved self-care (exercise, healthy diet, free time to enjoy hobbies like making art, etc.). Improving self-care is often difficult for nurses as they are accustomed to constantly putting others’ needs before their own, but taking extra time for yourself is essential to keeping compassion fatigue to a minimum.