Fighting Compassion Fatigue in the Nursing Profession

NursingAugust 08, 2014

It's normal for anyone in any profession to feel a little burned out at times, but have you ever noticed your professional exhaustion bleeding over into your personal life? Maybe you're isolating yourself from others, having difficulty concentrating at work and home, experiencing feelings of hopelessness or even engaging in compulsive behaviors such as overspending or overeating.

If so, you might be suffering from a condition known as "compassion fatigue."

What Is It?

Compassion fatigue, sometimes referred to as secondary traumatic stress, can occur in anyone, but nurses and healthcare workers in general are particularly prone to this chronic form of burnout. In fact, it was first diagnosed in nurses in the 1950s. Typically, it's seen in caregivers who fail to take care of themselves in their quest to take care of others, causing feelings of apathy, negativity or simply shutting down feelings altogether as a protective mechanism.

What Causes It?

A common cause of compassion fatigue is working extensively with trauma patients. There are also certain individual personality traits that can predispose you to this condition: perfectionism, extreme conscientiousness and a deep drive to help others.

Sound familiar?

Another contributing factor is the "culture of silence" prevalent in healthcare. All too often, nurses and healthcare personnel fail to express feelings after the death of a patient or any kind of traumatic care situation, such as treating victims of violence or dealing with family members' grief. Nurses often simply go on about their shift as if nothing happened, both out of necessity as well as to conceal any signs of "weakness" from their coworkers.

What Cures It?

They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure; that is especially true with this debilitating condition. The first step in fighting compassion fatigue is awareness: Watch for symptoms that indicate that burnout has become a significant problem. But before that even happens, you should incorporate into your life some ways to relieve stress and vent your emotions rather than bottling everything up. Whether it's a coworker or friend, find someone you can talk to about your feelings of frustration and grief concerning the difficult situations you face every day as a nurse. Also, try to find a coworker that you can lean on at work so that you can help each other when things get stressful.

Most importantly, be sure to take time off from work to pamper yourself and enjoy life — just because you take care of those who are suffering every day doesn't mean you have to suffer also. If you really want to be the best nurse you can be, make sure to care for yourself as well as you do your patients.

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