5 Effective Strategies for Dealing with Compassion Fatigue

compassion fatigueBy Victoria Bey

Compassion fatigue impacts most nurses at some point in their career. 

Particularly common among nurses who work in intensive care units, neonatal critical care units, and hospice environments, compassion fatigue forms when nurses do their best to improve a patient’s health only to be disappointed by loss. 

If you or someone you know suffers from compassion fatigue, become familiar with its causes and learn effective strategies to help you cope.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue has varying definitions, but a review published in the Online Journal of Issues in Nursing identifies it as “a combination of physical, emotional, and spiritual depletion associated with caring for patients in significant emotional pain and physical distress.”

But what does this look like in real life? How does compassion fatigue manifest itself, and is every nurse susceptible?

The short answer to the latter is yes, every nurse who works directly with patients is susceptible to compassion fatigue. 

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A case study in the previously mentioned review outlines the journey of one nurse and serves as one of the best compassion fatigue examples. 

It notes that although the nurse was a leader on her unit, a series of patient deaths and a continuously demanding workload resulted in:

  • Feelings of drudgery when thinking about work
  • Increased tardiness upon arrival to her shift
  • Failure to show enthusiasm and patience on the unit, when she previously excelled in both
  • Difficulty balancing work and life successfully to the point it was noticed by others
  • Physical and emotional exhaustion

These behaviors are how one nurse displayed symptoms of compassion fatigue, but by no means is this example one size fits all.

How Common is Compassion Fatigue in Nursing?

A review of available literature published in 2015 notes that two studies report up to 38-40 percent of active nurses, or 2 in 5, experience compassion fatigue. 

Lack of compassion fatigue treatment has been linked with increased medical errors, poor quality of care, and higher rates of nurse burnout. There is some evidence that up to 70 percent of nurses in critical units, like the ICU, experience burnout and reduced compassion satisfaction.

Further research published in the Journal of Hospice & Palliative Care Nursing found that more than 25 percent of respondents were at high risk for developing compassion fatigue. 

Significantly, researchers identified life’s demands, trauma, excessive empathy, and anxiety as key determinants of compassion fatigue.

Regardless of specialty, no nurse is immune to compassion fatigue. Aparna Bala, RN, a nurse with more than 15 years' experience caring for patients, understands this well. 

Bala discusses the importance of compassion fatigue treatment and awareness by stating, “... Avoiding burnout before it happens helps ensure everyone’s health and care remains top priority.”

Common Compassion Fatigue Examples

Emotional and physical exhaustion are key symptoms of compassion fatigue, but when applied to the stressful situations in which nurses must operate, these symptoms look very different. 

Take a look at some common compassion fatigue examples to discover if they apply to you or someone you know:

  • Short temper and irritability at work
  • Difficulty multitasking at work and in life
  • Intrusive thoughts about recent losses or stressors
  • Indifference toward the needs of patients or family members
  • Decline in personal hygiene
  • Feelings of depression or lack of emotion
  • Oversensitivity to comments or constructive criticism
  • Development of a substance dependence or increase in existing substance use
  • Problems staying awake or asleep when appropriate

5 Strategies to Deal with Compassion Fatigue

If you or someone you know can identify with the above compassion fatigue examples, it’s important to implement strategies to cope positively and avoid burnout. 

Review these five common strategies you can use to overcome compassion fatigue.

1. Obtain closure after a traumatic patient experience. As Aparna Bala, RN, knows, losing a patient is one of the worst experiences a nurse can have, but at some point nearly all nurses will experience it. 

“It’s hard to ignore the feeling that something could have been done,” Bala comments, but she urges nurses to seek closure using the hospital’s technology and other members of the patient’s treatment team. Bala states, “Simply knowing what exactly happened can relieve an element of stress.”

2. Take care of your personal needs and body. Proactively performing self-care is a first-line attack against the exhaustion that stems from compassion fatigue. 

In addition to taking time away from work for yourself, get plenty of rest, eat a healthy diet, and exercise (even if just for a few minutes on your break). Consider using apps to help you achieve restful sleep or partnering with a coworker to hit the gym after work.

3. Access available resources. While caring for patients, nurses find themselves becoming a resource for the patient’s loved ones, which can enhance compassion fatigue and expedite burnout. 

Many nurses make the mistake of trying to meet this need alone, but Bala warns against this. “By identifying and leveraging resources within the hospital — whether a social worker, chaplain, or the resident psychologist — a nurse can ensure that the family has the resources they need and are treated with the respect they deserve."

4. Achieve work/life balance. This is certainly easier said than done, but it’s not impossible. Evaluate your personal life to identify one stressor or one thing you’re most unhappy about (or that causes you the most stress), and make a plan to address it. 

For some, it’s marital discord; for others, it might be not traveling enough. Taking steps to actively work on an area of your life that needs it will enhance your ability to cope with work-related stressors

Action steps may include seeing a counselor for relationship issues, taking a day trip on your day off, or finally starting that art class you’ve been putting off.

5. Ask for help even if it is uncomfortable. After working with countless nurses in more than 20 hospital settings, Bala knows that “one of the most beneficial things a nurse can do is identify a mentor that can offer both emotional and clinical support.” 

Reach out to a nurse leader who understands the signs of compassion fatigue and can offer support. Bala knows from experience that the capability to lean on a mentor in times of duress positively impacts a nurse’s (and indirectly, the patient’s) experience.

Between awareness and compassion fatigue treatment, nurses have the resources to prevent burnout and retain a positive sentiment about their career.

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