Hey there nurse. We know you’ve put your everything into helping your patients and their families. Your selfless care and attention to detail often go unnoticed, and most unfortunately – your service to others is often thankless. We feel you. We are you.
We know what it feels like to put your heart and soul into protecting and caring for our patients, and somehow despite the amazing job we’ve accomplished, we still feel defeated by the end of our shift. With the ever-changing healthcare system and the enormous demands that are being placed on nurses in today’s healthcare arena, compassion fatigue one of the many crippling forces that we nurses face on a daily basis.
In this article, we will identify compassion fatigue and discuss 5 ways that you can prevent it.
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. The physical, emotional, spiritual, social and organizational consequences of compassion fatigue can be so extensive that they threaten the existential integrity of the nurse. Such consequences include, but are not limited to: decreased level of job satisfaction, decreased productivity, increased rates of absenteeism, burnout, turnover, stress, insomnia, nightmares, headaches, gastrointestinal complaints, anxiety and depression.
Why is Compassion Fatigue an issue?
When healthcare providers such as nurses become depleted of their ability to effectively cope with the amount of stress that is placed upon them, patient care and safety decline. When a nurse suffers from compassion fatigue, it does not mean that they no longer want to care for others, nor does it mean that they are incapable of caring either. Compassion fatigue is not simply a lack of willingness to care, but it is a major barrier to providing high-quality, compassionate care.
For those who are not familiar with nursing compassion fatigue, consider that you are a nurse on a busy acute care unit, and it is going on 4 o’clock in the afternoon. You have been at the hospital since 6:45 in the morning and you have not stopped delivering direct patient care once to drink water, eat, or use the restroom. While your very own basic needs are not being met, you are doing your best to provide compassionate care to your patients and their family members. Some of your patients are easy to please and care for, while majority of your other patients are very sick, emotionally unstable, and require a tremendous amount of your time. You have so many things to do – documentation, wound care, and discharge teaching, but you can’t even think straight. You’re beginning to have an internal conflict, where you are trying to decide what’s more important at this moment – drinking water so you don’t pass out, or using the restroom so you don’t have an accident. Now you’re distracted. You are no longer focusing on your patient’s status, as you are consumed by your own internal conflict.
While you are deciding that using the restroom takes priority, one of your patients comes into the hallway and yells “NURSE! I need my pain medication!”. Your colleagues look at you like you are crazy for not giving the patient their pain medication, and then suddenly you feel a little bit of urine trickle down your leg, and you think to yourself “I just can’t even right now.” Many of us have been that nurse. Tired, hungry, and now ashamed because we are trying our very best to meet the needs of our patients before we meet our own needs.
It’s only a matter of time before situations like this will cause compassionate nurses to become cynical, apathetic, and afraid of the consequences of putting the needs of their patients first. This in itself becomes a dangerous situation and should be prevented at all costs!
What can be done to prevent it?
Although the risk of compassion fatigue is inherent in helping others who have experienced illness, loss & trauma, experts and researchers in this area provide some guidelines for managing the demands of the work while protecting ourselves.
Here are 5 ways that we can safeguard ourselves against compassion fatigue:
Self-care includes activities, rituals and routines that help to promote individual holistic wellness. Some examples of self-care include:
- Getting plenty of rest and relaxation
- Getting plenty of exercise and physical activity
- Participating in prayer or spiritual ritual
- Consuming a healthy diet
- Surrounding yourself with people who love and support you
Set emotional boundaries
Providing care for patients who are healing requires empathy and emotional involvement on the part of the caregiver. These qualities of care providers are what makes such interactions so supportive and meaningful, but they can also become overwhelming if we become too involved. It is essential to establish boundaries with our patients so that we do not assume their pain and experiences as our own. The challenge is to demonstrate compassion while being mindful that we are different people with different needs. This awareness can help to secure the space that exists between the care provider and the person receiving the care, which helps the provider to justify putting their basic needs and safety before that of the patient’s.
Rely on support from peers and co-workers
It is essential to develop an organizational culture that normalizes grief and other reactions that we may experience while working with those who are ill and dying. Rather than assuming that negative reactions are a sign of individual weakness or an inability to fulfill the responsibilities of the caregiver role, we should rely on the support from our peers and co-workers when we are dealing with heavy emotions. Cultivating this kind of work environment can be very helpful in reducing stress and feelings of helplessness for care providers who are overwhelmed with negative feelings related to the caregiver roles and responsibilities.
Use active coping strategies
We all have our usual ways of coping with stress or difficult situations. Which coping strategy we choose to utilize appears to make a major impact in managing our stress levels. Studies have shown that using active coping strategies such as humor, social support, taking charge, and planning your time and schedule are more effective than negative or avoidant coping strategies. Choosing to cope by engaging in substance abuse, withdrawing from others and activities, or by using acts of aggression do nothing but exacerbate stress levels and can put your patients and your professional license in jeopardy. When you are feeling overwhelmed, a quick, on-the-spot strategy to reduce your stress is to close your eyes, take a deep breath and count to ten. This simple, yet effective stress reducing technique can save you from making bad decisions, or losing focus of what’s most important at that moment.
Keeping it all together
Managing the impact of caregiver role strain and stress requires a daily and ongoing commitment to self well-being. It is easy to live in the tunnel vision of “caring for others”, and we know too well that it can feel impossible to take time out for ourselves to be refueled and replenished. Just remember that holistic self-wellness should NEVER be considered selfish. By taking care of ourselves as we care for others, we are protecting our valuable personal assets that support us in delivering high-quality care for our patients, their families and our communities.
Have you ever experienced compassion fatigue? Do you have tips or recommendations to prevent compassion fatigue? If so, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.