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Compassion Fatigue in Nursing

*Original post released on 11/28/2022

As nurses, it’s our job description to care for others. Compassion fatigue can happen to a nurse when they give too much of themselves to others too often, don’t perform or prioritize enough self care, and/or become too emotionally involved in their patients’ care/journey. It’s the continual empathy for our patients’ that leads to depletion of physical, emotional, and spiritual energy over time.

There are many ways in which compassion fatigue can manifest. For instance, a nurse could become irritable, feel more stressed out, and have an increased sense of fatigue and overall tiredness. It can also present as sadness, depression, or emotional detachment. At times, nurses can experience a decreased sense of fulfillment from their job or even begin to have a change in their fundamental beliefs.

Compassion fatigue can happen to any nurse, but it typically happens to those who have difficulty establishing boundaries with their patients’ and their patients’ families. These nurses might allow patients/families to complain too much with them. Or it may look like taking care of a patient who is constantly in need of something to improve their comfort level, whether that’s extra linens, refreshments, repositioning, having someone be present with them, having someone listen to them, etc. All of these situations can easily over exert the nurse caring for multiple patients. Over time, the cumulative effects can lead to compassion fatigue. These cumulative effects place extra mental and emotional stress on the mind and body, decreases overall job satisfaction and productivity, and can even increase staff turnover rates.

So how can you combat the effects of compassion fatigue as a nurse in such a demanding world? First of all, work on establishing boundaries with your patients. Limit how much personal information or context you disclose to your patients or allow them to disclose. Ask questions only related to the information you require to do your job to the best of your ability. Have a bailout buddy who can call you away to another task if a patient keeps you in the room longer than, let’s say, 15 minutes. For patients who are experiencing end of life struggles, attempt to limit your physical contact with the patient. That may seem cold and heartless, but hear me out. The longer I’ve been a nurse, the more I’ve come to recognize that for some nurses, negative energy can pass through simple touch. Find other ways to promote your patients’ comfort without needed to have physical contact.

Allow others to help you while working in your job. Even if it’s something as simple as changing a mobile patient’s linens, have a buddy in the room with you. Another person can serve as a buffer for difficult energy, conversations, and actions from the patient. Having another nurse assist you can also help you accomplish tasks more quickly so you can leave the room and conserve your own energy without having to sacrifice your performance. On a similar note, be sure to surround yourself with a strong support system who understands the emotional strains and needs of your profession.

Personally, there are a few things you are able to do to combat compassion fatigue. Engage in more activities of self care. Only you know what relaxation techniques and activities help you unwind, de-stress, and heal mentally/emotionally. Hone in on those specific activities and start by doing at least one a week, increasing as needed to meet your emotional needs. If this is up your alley, seek spiritual care, answers, and support. If you’re religious, consider relying on a confidant who shares the same ideals and values as you. Finally, actually allow yourself to experience the emotions associated with your job. If you’ve lost a patient, address how that loss made you feel and reflect upon it; don’t just bury those feelings down deeper.

No nurse is immune to the cumulative effects of our job that leads to compassion fatigue. I hope the discussion in this article helped you recognize areas in your job that leave you more susceptible to this condition. However, what I hope for most is that you’ve found a few suggestions to help you manage and improve the thoughts and feelings you might be experiencing so that you can enjoy your job again. Reclaim the passion you have for nursing! Until next time, happy studying!

Andra Alyse

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