Are You Experiencing Compassion Fatigue?
Every day healthcare professionals witness suffering and respond by treating people, providing comfort and working to improve lives. Caring for the needs of people in pain and distress is valuable work, but it can be draining and cause compassion fatigue.
Doctors and nurses must understand and respond to patients’ suffering to help relieve their pain and distress. This frequent and prolonged exposure to other people’s pain, trauma and grief can exhaust and overwhelm care providers.
Compassion is a valuable gift to patients and families receiving treatment and can be deeply rewarding. Treating each patient’s traumatic situation with empathy can come at a cost though. Sometimes healthcare providers develop a deep fatigue and lessened ability to cope because of the stress called compassion fatigue.
What is compassion fatigue?
Compassion fatigue happens when a person becomes overwhelmed by regular exposure to other people’s trauma and suffering. It can also happen when you hear about traumatic events in others’ lives. This condition can make care providers feel exhausted emotionally, physically, socially and spiritually. Some people refer to compassion fatigue as “the cost of caring.”
Compassion fatigue differs from burnout in healthcare. Burnout is a result of repeated work stress and overwork. Burnout also comes from repeated, frequent demands of work and home, leaving the person drained and overwhelmed.
Compassion fatigue relates specifically to care providers regularly encountering pain, suffering and death. This exposure can seriously affect a person’s mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health. It can also impact their ability to care for others and their job performance.
Signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue
The condition has a wide range of signs and symptoms that may vary from person to person.
A common symptom of compassion fatigue is a decreased ability to feel sympathy and empathy and to act compassionately. The person becomes more detached, focuses more on tasks and less on emotions and may pull away from others.
Another common symptom is significant, deep physical and emotional exhaustion.
Other symptoms may include:
- Physical: fatigue and physical exhaustion, headaches, GI complaints, sleep disturbances or insomnia, appetite changes, chronic pain, weakened immune system
- Emotional: anger, irritability, depression, anxiety and/or obsessive worrying, numbness or emotional disconnection, lowered sense of personal achievement and self-esteem, self-contempt
- Behavioral: lack of self-care, lessened ability or interest in caring for others, increased tardiness, missing work, substance abuse (food, alcohol, drugs)
- Cognitive: intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, decreased productivity, inability to make decisions, low motivation, forgetfulness
- Spiritual: feelings of hopelessness, loss of purpose, questions the good in the world
- Relational: withdrawal or disconnection from friends and family, increased relational problems, emotional disconnection
Preventing the condition
Compassion fatigue has cumulative effects and can grow worse with time. After years of serving others and witnessing trauma, the emotional residue can cause healthcare workers to feel overwhelmed.
Taking steps to prevent and treat the condition is important for doctors, nurses, healthcare professionals and care providers. Left untreated, compassion fatigue can result in clinical depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). To prevent compassion fatigue, healthcare providers must make intentional choices to protect their mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.
First, acknowledge you are human and allow yourself to rest. Take days off to recuperate. The work you do is valuable but also hard. The cost of caring is not always visible, so set boundaries around your time that allow you to recover.
Second, talk with your manager and coworkers to create a culture of compassion. This will permit you to debrief about hard situations or cases. Fostering a compassionate work environment will not only benefit you but also your fellow nurses, physicians and patients.
Third, choose to be mindful about taking satisfaction in your work. Celebrate the good work that you and many other medical professionals do. This is called compassion satisfaction.
Celebrating good things and feeling satisfied with helping others has a positive impact on people, according to a report in Positive Psychology. Focusing on burnout or traumatic stress has a negative effect.
Treatment for the condition
If you are experiencing compassion fatigue, acknowledge your feelings and that you are exhausted. While there is no “cure” for compassion fatigue, you can take steps to heal and return to a healthy, full life.
- Acknowledge how you are feeling and that you have compassion fatigue.
- Make self-care part of your routine: adequate sleep, healthy nutrition, physical activity, relaxation and socializing. Take time to be still and perform regular check-ins on how you feel.
- Talk to your coworkers and manager or others in a care-providing field to debrief.
- Consider changing work assignments or requesting rotations through less acute areas.
- Develop a strong social network to help you cope with symptoms that may arise.
- Relax. Reconnect with hobbies you enjoy or used to enjoy. Take time to watch funny movies or play games with friends and family to recuperate.
- Actively practice stress management techniques.
- Try box breathing – breathe in for 4 counts, hold the breath for 4 counts, breathe out for 4 counts, and hold the empty breath for 4 counts.
- Deep breathing – take a deep breath in, hold it, then exhale like you are blowing out candles.
- Progressive relaxation – squeeze a fist, then gradually release it and repeat.
- Get regular exercise – Take a walk or go for a jog. Attend a workout class. Punch a punching bag.
- Go outside and observe nature.
- Talk to a counselor or journal your thoughts and feelings.
- Set healthy and appropriate emotional boundaries without closing yourself off to the world or loved ones.
- Focus on the positive aspects of the work you do and celebrate them.
- Do not try to dismiss compassion fatigue with unhealthy coping habits. Addictions can form from drinking too much alcohol, taking drugs to numb yourself, overeating or undereating.
- Do not start gambling.
- Do not make major decisions.
- Do not take on extra shifts or more work.
Tinkbird supports healthcare professionals
Tinkbird places a high value on our healthcare providers and their well-being. We love our nurses and physicians and the quality care they provide to their patients.
Tinkbird supports doctors and nurses with healthcare job placement for many clinical positions. We want to ensure each of our healthcare providers finds the right fit.
We offer industry-leading compensation and benefits packages to make our physicians and nurses feel appreciated and supported. Tinkbird also offers support 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.