What Is Compassion Fatigue in Nursing? Overview and FAQ

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Written by Katherine Zheng, PhD, BSN Content Writer, IntelyCare
A nurse comforts a fellow nurse who is suffering from compassion fatigue.

Nurses care for patients who experience some of the most emotionally and physically taxing situations of their lives. Being exposed to this day in and day out can take a toll on mental health, potentially leading to what’s known as “compassion fatigue.” If you’re a facility leader, you may be wondering — what is compassion fatigue and how can I prevent it among my staff?

With roughly 57% of nurses experiencing compassion fatigue during their careers, it’s crucial for facilities to find ways to support the mental wellbeing of their workforce. In this FAQ, we’ll describe the fundamentals of what this phenomenon is, how it can be identified, and ways to help treat and prevent it.

What Is Compassion Fatigue in Nursing?

Compassion fatigue is the decline in a nurse’s ability to deliver compassionate care because of prolonged exposure to others’ suffering. This is also known as secondary trauma, since it occurs from internalizing the emotional trauma of other people.

More simply put, compassion fatigue manifests when nurses work so hard to provide compassion that they eventually feel like they have no more to give. Nurses “run out” of their stores of empathy, leaving them feeling detached from what’s going on around them.

What Is Compassion Fatigue vs. Burnout?

In the healthcare industry, burnout vs. compassion fatigue is an important distinction to understand. While these are closely related, burnout more generally refers to physical and emotional exhaustion from work-related stress. This can occur in people across all types of industries.

On the other hand, compassion fatigue is more unique to healthcare workers, since it refers to exhaustion from emotional caregiving. Burnout can often contribute to and worsen feelings of compassion fatigue among nurses who regularly deal with heavy patient loads.

What Are the Signs of Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue develops over a period of time and can manifest differently from person to person. However, there are common warning signs — many of which are noticeable in the workplace. These include:

  • Seeming distracted or hopeless in front of patients
  • Uncharacteristic feelings of anxiety, anger, or irritability
  • Social withdrawal or isolative behaviors
  • Poor judgment or increased work errors
  • Emotional disconnection or detachment

If a nurse is indicating unusual changes in their everyday behaviors — such as decreased appetite, worsened sleep, or a loss of enjoyment in hobbies — these could also be signs of compassion fatigue.

What Is The Cause of Compassion Fatigue?

Nurses are trained to maintain composure and be compassionate toward patients in highly stressful situations. This can make it difficult to set boundaries that are necessary for self-care. Over time, expectations to set aside personal needs can leave nurses feeling physically and emotionally depleted.

While exposure to traumatic events is, unfortunately, recognized as part of the job, a lack of boundary setting is what gradually wears out a nurse. For instance, nurses who skip lunch breaks or pick up shifts on their days off are shown to be at higher risk of compassion fatigue. Additionally, many facility-level factors — such as understaffing and negative work cultures — often prevent nurses from setting these boundaries on their own accord.

What Are the Consequences of Compassion Fatigue?

For a nurse experiencing compassion fatigue, it’s difficult to regain motivation without receiving proper mental health support. When left unaddressed, a nurse’s mental wellbeing can worsen, leading to:

  • Emotional and spiritual dysregulation
  • Desires to leave the job or profession altogether
  • Reliance on unhealthy coping behaviors (e.g., alcohol use)

At the facility level, this can lead to many other consequences, such as workplace absenteeism, higher turnover, lower quality of care, and patient dissatisfaction.

How Is Compassion Fatigue Treated?

When it comes to compassion fatigue, treatment requires a multifaceted approach to bolstering a nurse’s resilience and restoring their sense of self-worth. Research has shown that the most effective way to address compassion fatigue is participation in evidence-based programs geared toward helping nurses:

  • Identify symptoms of compassion fatigue
  • Recognize triggers of compassion fatigue
  • Utilize healthy coping mechanisms
  • Practice self-compassion and self-care
  • Set personal and professional boundaries

It’s important to understand that compassion fatigue is an individualized experience. Symptoms and triggers can vary, and what’s helpful for one nurse may not be as effective for another. Nurses should be encouraged to receive personalized help through compassion fatigue programs or by consulting a mental health professional.

What Can Facilities Do to Prevent Compassion Fatigue?

While there is no one-size-fits all approach to preventing compassion fatigue, facilities can take steps to support the overall wellbeing of their nurses. Implement these strategies and resources to promote a more balanced work life:

  • Assign reasonable patient loads to help prevent burnout
  • Invest in employer-funded mental health programs and resources
  • Ensure units are adequately staffed to allow for lunch breaks and prevent overtime
  • Hire a wellness officer who can help voice and address mental health concerns
  • Focus on creating and maintaining a healthy work environment

Discover More Ways to Support Your Staff

Now that we’ve answered the question, what is compassion fatigue? you may be looking for other ways to promote the wellbeing of your staff. Don’t miss out on IntelyCare’s other free tips and guides that can help you build a stronger workforce.