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How Nurses Can Combat Compassion Fatigue

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Day in and day out, nurses provide empathetic, compassionate care for patients experiencing some of the most difficult times of their lives. This kind of work takes an emotional toll on nursing professionals over time, potentially leading to compassion fatigue, or a decline in the ability to provide empathetic, compassionate care.

Many nurses experience this problem. Compassion fatigue reportedly affects 16% to 39% of registered nurses, with most reports coming from nurses working in areas like hospice, oncology, and emergency care.

Recognizing and addressing the signs of compassion fatigue may allow nursing professionals to seek the help they need to provide the best nursing care possible.

Signs of Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue, also sometimes referred to as vicarious or secondary traumatization, often comes on more quickly than burnout. Nurse burnout and compassion fatigue share some similar signs, including emotional and mental exhaustion, feeling isolated, and a sense of disconnect between one’s work and the goals or cause at hand.

However, compassion fatigue often includes more specific signs:

  • Impairment of judgement and behavior
  • A loss of hope, self-worth, and self-esteem
  • A potential for PTSD and depression
  • Negative impact on spiritual identity and worldview
  • An overall decline in morale
  • A decrease in cognitive function and ability
  • Disturbances in sleep pattern
  • Ways to Prevent and Deal With Compassion Fatigue

    Identifying and managing signs of compassion fatigue early on can help nurses recover quickly. We sought advice from nurses on how to prevent or ease the effects of compassion fatigue, detailed below.

    1. Set a schedule that works for you

    Choose a work schedule that allows you to balance your work and personal life. Mallorie Resendez Bassetti (CNM, MSN), a practicing nurse-midwife based in Arizona, recommends working a schedule that makes the most sense for your well-being. If working only night shifts proves too taxing, switch to day shifts, or alternate your days.

    “Just because it seems like everyone is working three 12-hour shifts, or all new nurses start on nights, does not mean that you have to also,” Bassetti points out. “The beauty of our field is how diverse it is.”

    Overworking can also lead to compassion fatigue. Try maintaining the option to drop down to a part-time schedule when necessary.

    2. Make time for yourself

    Setting aside time to practice self-care plays a crucial part in avoiding burnout and healing from compassion fatigue. Assistant Clinical Professor and MSN Jackie Murphy, EdD, recommends finding time for self-care, even if only five minutes a day.

    Those few minutes allow you to decompress and prioritize yourself and your well-being. While Murphy suggests activities like short meditations, walks, yoga, or reciting affirmations, self-care comes in many forms, and you should do what works best for you and your schedule.

    As Murphy reminds us, “If we don’t care for ourselves, we can’t care for others.”

    3. Create a support system

    Building and fostering a support system can help working nurses share their feelings and express their struggles.

    “Keeping emotions and experiences bottled up creates mental barriers with your peers,” says registered nurse and blogger Emma Leigh Geiser. “When you share how you are feeling about your shift you can work through these emotions.”

    Bassetti also recommends sharing with someone. “Use someone to debrief,” she says. “Taking care of people is exhausting work. Identify someone that will listen to you after your shifts so that you can set all of that weight down. It may be a partner, a friend, or a coworker. It doesn’t hurt if they remind you of how wonderful you are, and how important your work is, either.”

    4. Make work an enjoyable place

    Nursing practice often proves stressful, and this may make it easy to find your workplace unenjoyable. Bassetti suggests finding ways to make your workplace more pleasant, even in small ways.

    “If the atmosphere at your job is supportive and nourishing, you will have a lot more to give your patients,” she says. “Likewise, if you feel unvalued or bullied, you will burn through your reserve so much faster.”

    Fostering positivity and camaraderie amongst your coworkers and care team can help improve your overall feelings toward work, and help you maintain a positive attitude toward your job and caring for patients.

    5. Move around to new positions

    Fortunately, nurses remain in high demand across most of the country, as the need for qualified nursing professionals continues to grow. This makes it easy for nurses to move to new roles, positions, departments, and geographic locations.

    “Don’t be afraid to shake things up, nursing has many career opportunities,” says Geiser. “Just because you thought you were destined for one department doesn’t mean it will be a good fit forever. Sometimes all we need is a change of scenery.”

    If you begin to feel burned out or emotionally exhausted in one place, consider moving someplace new.

    Additional Resources for Nurses

    • Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project This group aims to spread awareness of compassion fatigue. The organization’s website offers resources for caregivers and healthcare professionals, including tips and self stress-tests.
    • NursesRX This online resource for nursing professionals offers information on travel nursing and provides nurses with tips for combating compassion fatigue.
    • RN.com Along with online continuing education opportunities, this website offers tips and tricks for dealing with compassion fatigue and helping co-workers who may also be suffering.
    • Unrestrained Podcast Featuring psychiatry nurse Laurie Barkin, this free podcast episode details strategies for coping with vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue. Barkin draws on her extensive experience to provide support.

    Our Contributors

    Jackie Murphy, EdD, RN, CPN, CNE completed her undergraduate studies at Gwynedd-Mercy University and Thomas Jefferson University. She earned an MSN in nursing education and faculty role and an EdD in educational leadership and management from Drexel University. She has worked in higher education since 2007, and currently teaches online graduate core courses, the nursing education track, and the complementary and integrative health program at Drexel. In addition to being a certified nurse educator, a certified pediatric nurse, and a certified school nurse, Murphy is certified in teaching meditation and mindfulness.

    Mallorie Resendez Bassetti, CNM, MSN, is a practicing nurse-midwife in sunny Gilbert, Arizona. She works in private practice and attends births in the hospital. She is a graduate of Frontier Nursing University and earned her BS in nursing at Arizona State University prior. Currently, she is enrolled again at Frontier Nursing University to complete her doctorate of nursing practice. A self-proclaimed nerd, she loves keeping abreast of the latest research and is always fine-tuning her practice. She has a special interest in informed consent and shared-decision making.

    Emma Leigh Geiser is a registered nurse, blogger at www.nursefern.com, freelance writer, and financial coach. She recently celebrated 10 years in the amazing field of nursing.

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