Running on Empty: Compassion Fatigue Among Nurses
Nurses care. Nurses are compassionate beings. Nurses are modern day superheroes. Nurses save lives.Nurses are everywhere, from the hospital to other nursing-related work settings, catering to patients sick and well.All these come to mind when nurses are concerned. However what others forget to remember is that nurses also get tired.
Every day we face stressful situations. From gory scenarios, to toxic co-workers, a heavy workload and demanding folks. Nursing burnout is not new to most anymore, and is often talked about in discussions and even various sites. The term “compassion fatigue,” however, has started to emerge these past few years.
What is compassion fatigue?
Compassion fatigue has been defined as a combination of physical, emotional, and spiritual depletion associated with caring for patients in significant emotional pain and physical distress. According to Joinson (1992) as she described the concept in her work with emergency room personnel, “compassion fatigue is a unique form of burnout that affects individuals in caregiving roles.”
Breaking it down, “compassion” is defined as an emotion whereby nurses enter into the world of the client, become aware of his suffering and, upon feeling his pain, take action to ease it. It is a “feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by suffering or misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the pain or remove its cause.”
According to Mcholm (2006), “although the ability to be compassionate and have empathy is a desirable quality that contributes to establishing trust and therapeutic effectiveness with patients, it is exactly this sensitivity that makes nurses vulnerable.” Over time, what makes us unique and is considered as one of our strengths – compassion, can become an emotional toll.
This type of fatigue brings the sufferer to lose the ability to experience satisfaction or joy professionally or personally. It should also be noted that compassion fatigue is not pathological in the sense of mental illness, but instead, it is considered a natural behavioral and emotional response that results from helping or desiring to help another person suffering trauma or pain
Various authors have identified the symptoms of compassion fatigue such as Figley (1995) and Gentry et al (2004). These symptoms can include work-related symptoms, physical symptoms, and emotional symptoms.
- Avoidance or dread of working with certain patients
- Reduced ability to feel empathy towards patients or families
- Frequent use of sick days
- Lack of joyfulness
- Digestive problems: diarrhea, constipation, upset stomach
- Muscle tension
- Sleep disturbances: inability to sleep, insomnia, too much sleep
- Cardiac symptoms: chest pain/pressure, palpitations, tachycardia
- Mood swings
- Over sensitivity
- Excessive use of substances: nicotine, alcohol, illicit drugs
- Anger and resentment
- Loss of objectivity
- Memory issues
- Poor concentration, focus, and judgment
Addressing compassion fatigue
Every nurse is vulnerable to this fatigue as we deal with different types of patients daily. However, there is a way to intervene and address this issue:
- Reviewing the resources that are available in the workplace
Most hospitals now include an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) as part of the Human Resources Department. The purpose of this program is to provide employees with supportive counseling for personal and/or work-related issues.
- Seeking out a mentor, supervisor, experienced nurse, or a charge nurse who understands the norms and expectations of one’s unit may assist in identifying strategies that will help cope with the current work situation. These may include:
- changing the work assignment or shift;
- recommending time off or reducing overtime hours;
- encouraging attendance at a conference;
- or becoming involved in a project of interest.
- Seeking help from the Pastoral Care Departments as they offer a variety of activities to support nurses. These may include:
- facilitating reminiscence during times of loss or death;
- leading memorial services;
- offering prayer and comfort for patients, families, and hospital staff; and
- providing spiritual help through individual counseling and group programs.
- Creating a comfortable, relaxing environment in a designated place on the nursing unit, which can be done simply by just transforming an available room into a relaxation area.
- Developing positive self-care strategies and healthy rituals. Healthy rituals are those activities that one participates in on a regular basis and that replenish personal energy levels and enhance feelings of well being. Make sure that you as a nurse, while trying to meet the needs of others, do not neglect your own needs. It is important that nurses identify replenishing strategies that can promote physical, emotional, and spiritual well being.