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Dealing With Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue is innate to the nursing profession, with the COVID-19 pandemic heightening the challenge and pushing healthcare systems and nurses to the limit. The impact of compassion fatigue on nurses is often overlooked, to the profound detriment of these essential workers' well-being and that of the patients they serve.

In order to combat compassion fatigue, healthcare leaders must normalize it and recognize its prevalence in the profession. Nursing managers can take initiative by providing prevention and education programs as well as robust support services for their staff.

The University of North Carolina Wilmington's online RN to BSN degree program prepares nurses to take on such managerial roles. Through the in-depth study of leadership in nursing, students can acquire the knowledge and tools needed to tackle compassion fatigue in their healthcare organizations.

How Compassion Fatigue Affects Nurses

When facing compassion fatigue, caregivers tend to lose the "ability to nurture." While there may be overlap, compassion fatigue is not synonymous with burnout. Compassion fatigue involves empathizing with another's pain and trauma to the point of holistic fatigue and stress, in turn decimating one's own empathic ability.

When positive outcomes seem unlikely or impossible, nurses may lose their sense hope. They may feel guilt and diminished self-efficacy, as though their compassionate efforts are futile. All of this and the empathic understanding or absorbing of patient and family trauma is leading to widespread compassion fatigue in the nursing community.

During the pandemic, exposure to and risk of contracting COVID-19 ratcheted stress to previously unknown levels for nurses, exacerbating compassion fatigue.

What Are Symptoms and Warning Signs of Compassion Fatigue?

According to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, some behaviors may be telltale signs. Nurse managers and nursing unit heads will want to keep an eye on nurses who:

  • Blame excessively
  • Bottle up emotions
  • Isolate from others
  • Voice excessive complaints about administrative functions
  • Self-medicate through substance abuse
  • Ignore self-care like hygiene and appearance
  • Suffer from ailments such as gastrointestinal problems and recurrent colds
  • Are unable to enjoy once pleasurable activities
  • Feel apathetic, sad
  • Employ denial as a means of self-preservation
  • Experience recurring nightmares and flashbacks

Other symptoms of compassion fatigue can include insomnia, emotional numbness and disconnection, anxiety, difficulties with personal relationships and other physical, mental and spiritual ailments.

What Can We Do to Combat Compassion Fatigue?

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue is the first step toward normalizing and combatting it. As workers and leaders in the helping professions develop more awareness of the phenomena, they can better work toward overcoming its negative impacts.

This awareness starts with education and prevention programs in the workplace as well as open dialogue between colleagues and in the nursing community at large. Employers must encourage caregivers to seek out ongoing emotional and social support as well as professional help when needed.

Actively practicing self-care is also an essential component of combatting compassion fatigue. This can include:

  • Maintaining a healthy diet
  • Exercising regularly
  • Engaging in pleasurable activities out of work
  • Committing to a healthy work-life balance
  • Reflecting through practices like journaling and meditation
  • Developing good sleep habits and routines
  • Fostering and preserving strong personal relationships and emotional support systems

While nurses are known for being inherently empathetic and selfless, they often put others' needs and well-being above their own. Reframing this selfless nature to include one's own emotional, physical and social health takes self-compassion. This can mean setting realistic goals and understanding there will be circumstances and difficult outcomes beyond one's control.

Accepting this reality while celebrating positive outcomes and focusing on gratitude can help caregivers maintain hope and a sense of purpose through challenging times. With self-care, self-compassion and healthy support systems, nurses can weather compassion fatigue while keeping their empathy and ability to nurture intact.

Learn more about the University of North Carolina Wilmington's online RN to BSN program.


American Nurses Association: Compassion Fatigue: A Nurse's Primer

American Psychological Association: Are You Experiencing Compassion Fatigue?

Canadian Occupational Safety: 20 Warning Signs of Compassion Fatigue

Compassion Fatigue:
Recognizing Compassion Fatigue
Did You Know?

Lippincott NursingCenter:
Experiences of Compassion Fatigue in Direct Care Nurses: A Qualitative Systematic Review Protocol
Nursing on Empty: Compassion Fatigue Signs, Symptoms, and Systems Interventions  

National Center for Biotechnology Information: The Potential for COVID-19 to Contribute to Compassion Fatigue in Critical Care Nurses

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