Compassion Fatigue in Hospitals: A Deadly Issue Among Nurses and What Employers Are Doing to Help

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Nurses can suffer from compassion fatigueFailing patients, distraught family members, 12-hour shifts, fast-paced hospital wings: All the makings of a worn-out nurse.

Many hospitals are educating their nurses and hospital staff about the dangerous effects of a condition called compassion fatigue. Is your employer doing the same?

Compassion fatigue vs. burnout

Burnout can happen to anybody in a high-stress profession like nursing. Most of your time as a nurse is spent putting other’s needs before your own. It doesn’t take long for the strain to start wearing you down. What starts as basic burnout can transform into a condition health care professionals are calling compassion fatigue.

Unlike burnout, compassion fatigue is specific to people like nurses who work with people experiencing extreme suffering and pain. Also called vicarious traumatization, compassion fatigue is just as draining as burnout. And it can endanger the health of patients.

What’s the big deal?

Research has found a direct correlation between nurses’ compassion fatigue and the success (or failure) of their patient. Left untreated, compassion fatigue compromises nurses’ ability to do their job well. That can lead to patients failing.

Why is compassion fatigue such a hot topic recently? Health care professionals point to these possibilities:

  • New nursing graduates are entering the field with considerably less experience with patient care.
  • Today’s patients are much sicker, entering the hospital with more serious diseases than in past years.
  • Hospitals are overloaded with technology — both a blessing and a curse. Nurses have many more opportunities to get distracted and fall behind in their work.
  • Costs and budgeting put a strain on resources, increasing stress for nurses.

Symptoms of compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue influences nurses’ physical and mental health. The American Institute of Stress says these symptoms are common warning signs of compassion fatigue:

  • Sleep disturbance
  • Increased emotional intensity, producing emotional exhaustion
  • Decreased cognitive ability, producing mental exhaustion
  • Impaired behavior and judgment
  • Isolation/loss of morale at work
  • Depression
  • Feelings of hopelessness and despair

These symptoms might not all show up at once, but a nurse experiencing several of them may be suffering from compassion fatigue.

How to combat compassion fatigue

The Emergency Nurses Association (ENA) lists five ways to effectively counter the effects of compassion fatigue in nurses in a topic brief published in 2014:

  • Self-regulation: Building your awareness of instinctive physical or mental responses in situations of high anxiety or stress.
  • Intentionality: Focusing on one task at a time while you’re at work.
  • Self-validated caregiving: Reminding yourself about the purpose of nursing and reducing stressful triggers in your work environment.
  • Connection: Creating and maintaining positive work relationships.
  • Self-care: Practicing regular exercise and other worthwhile activities.

What are hospitals doing?

Several admirable anti-compassion fatigue campaigns have been implemented at well-known hospitals.

Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center started an arts and humanities program for its staff. Teams explore activities like journal writing, dance and stretching exercises, quilting and painting. The activity centers are low pressure, encouraging nurses to do as much or as little as they like. In the process, they’ve been sharing their experiences with each other and melting stress away over time.

The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project is an initiative started by Patricia Smith, a certified compassion fatigue specialist. The website features resources for nurses, detailed research, and tools to recognize compassion fatigue and ways to counter its effects, including these self-tests.  Smith often travels to speak about the dangers of compassion fatigue, and has written several books on the topic.

After a survey revealed the stress levels of nurses in its oncology unit, Barnes-Jewish Hospital funded a pilot program to combat compassion fatigue. The Compassion Fatigue Resiliency Program is offered to all hospital staff and is run by Eric Gentry, a certified traumatologist. Nurses and staff members learn to be aware of certain symptoms of compassion fatigue.

Do you know of other hospitals doing cool things to combat compassion fatigue? Share with us at editorial@onlinenursing.wilkes.edu.

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