What to Know About Compassion Fatigue in Nursing

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Reviewed by Jeanne Kal Senior Manager, B2C Content, IntelyCare
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When you stop to consider all that’s asked of nursing professionals on a daily basis, chances are whatever pops into your head is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The job is understandably hard and requires an enormous effort on the part of the nurses and nursing assistants. We’re talking physical, mental, and emotional. The demands of the job can lead to compassion fatigue in nursing.

We’ll take a look at compassion fatigue, its underlying causes, and ideas to remedy its effects on healthcare professionals.

What Is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is the feeling of indifference toward caregiving. Essentially, your empathetic ability is compromised due to exposure to your patients’ suffering. This feeling of depletion can cause you to become emotionally withdrawn.

To define compassion fatigue, it helps to look at the word fatigue, which is “a state or attitude of indifference or apathy brought on by overexposure.” This phenomenon is widespread among nursing professionals, as the rigors of the job require long hours, have high rates of burnout, and are by nature emotionally taxing.

What Are Some Compassion Fatigue Symptoms?

Compassion fatigue can manifest in a number of ways. Not everyone will experience it the same way. Some signs of compassion fatigue may include feeling:

  • Cynical
  • Depressed
  • Emotionally detached and numb
  • Exhausted and overwhelmed
  • Helpless
  • Irritable

You may also have trouble sleeping, experience intrusive thoughts, and find that you don’t enjoy activities that you used to. Your feelings of self-worth may also be negatively impacted.

What Causes Compassion Fatigue?

The causes of compassion fatigue in nursing are varied, but they stem from nurses absorbing the traumatic experiences of their patients. Here are some examples of situations that could trigger an onset of compassion fatigue:

  • Working with children who are living through abuse, trauma, and/or violence
  • Being responsible for patients who are on suicide watch
  • Bearing witness to a patient’s insurmountable pain
  • Supporting a patient’s grieving family
  • Maintaining a heavy caseload in an understaffed facility

Cumulative exposure to such experiences can contribute to nurses’ compassion fatigue. COVID-19 was a a landmine of compassion fatigue for many nursing professionals, especially those in critical care who had to forge ahead with a lack of resources and staff, plus mounting death tolls.

Why Is There a Prevalence of Compassion Fatigue in Nursing?

Nursing professionals are accustomed to putting the needs of patients above their own, and it can become increasingly difficult for staff to compartmentalize emotions and have the best possible experience alongside patients.

Compassion fatigue is a byproduct of nursing professionals dealing with illness and death daily, and experiencing the full scope of these negative emotions can become increasingly difficult or unwelcome.

Compassion Fatigue vs. Burnout

Burnout and compassion fatigue in nursing are related, but they’re not exactly the same. Both conditions physically and emotionally exhaust a person. A main differentiator of compassion fatigue vs. burnout is that the latter is caused by external pressures like long hours, lack of resources, running from one patient to the next. Compassion fatigue, however, is more internal and a result of secondary traumatic stress.

How to Treat Compassion Fatigue

Here are some tips on managing compassion fatigue and working toward better experiences for yourself and your patients. Granted, all of these ideas are often easier said than done. Be patient with yourself.

1. Maintain a Work-Life Balance

Separating work from home is a great way to reduce stress. When you get home, make sure to change out of your scrubs and practice some form of self-care. For many people, meditation, deep breathing, or going for a walk can help you focus away from work stress.

There are many tactics you can use to maintain a better work-life balance, whether it’s discovering a new hobby or spending more time with family and friends. Self-scheduling can be a way to maintain a more livable work-life balance, as you can take time off when needed and work when you choose and feel the best fit to do so.

2. Find a Trusted Outlet

If you feel especially fatigued, exhausted, or need a release, journaling can be a great way to sort your feelings out. As a nurse, you have great organizational skills. Use those to your advantage; writing down your feelings is a great, healthy, and sustainable way to sort out your thoughts and emotions, especially if you tend to bottle them up.

But you don’t have to do it all on your own — there are many options available if you feel like you need outside support. Talk to a friend, colleague, or therapist to ease negative feelings.

3. Know That You Are Not a Bad Person

Experiencing compassion fatigue in nursing or emotional exhaustion doesn’t make you bad at your job or an apathetic person. In fact, the opposite is true. It’s a side-effect of caring for your patients and passionately wanting to do your job well.

Working to create a more fulfilling nursing career and ensuring a balance between your personal and professional lives does not come without challenges. Learning how to set boundaries, prioritize yourself and your needs, and maintain a supportive network is a great start to deal with the realities of a healthcare career.

Find Your Balance

At IntelyCare, we know the risks of compassion fatigue in nursing, and we want to transform the way you work. As an IntelyPro, you can take control of your schedule, and maintain a better work-life balance. Learn how to join the IntelyCare team today.