Written by Samantha Wall, LCSW
Being a nurse is a very challenging job, and you usually choose that career path because you like to help people. While helping others can be a rewarding job, it can be very tiring and taxing to meet others’ needs all day, especially when it has to do with their physical or mental well-being. I am sure that you have heard the term compassion fatigue many times, but what is compassion fatigue and how can it affect your day to day job as a nurse? Compassion fatigue is defined as “intense physical and emotional exhaustion along with major changes in their ability to feel empathy toward the patients they treat.” (Incredible Health, 2020). The symptoms can look very similar to burnout or vicarious trauma, but compassion fatigue is not the person’s fundamental beliefs about the world changing due to exposure to traumatic material, which happens with vicarious trauma. Compassion fatigue is also different from burnout because burnout, while you have low job satisfaction, does not mean you have lost the ability to feel compassion for others. When nurses experience compassion fatigue, it affects their daily work life, as well as their personal life. Having a lack of empathy affects the care they are able to provide their patients, as well as the care they are able to show to their personal relationships.
Recognizing compassion fatigue is a very important step to coping and combating the fatigue. Some symptoms include:
- Extreme exhaustion on a daily/regular basis (emotion, physical, or both)
- Increased irritability
- Diminished sense of self-worth
- Lower levels of job satisfaction
- Reduced ability to feel empathy
- Irrational fears
- Extreme anxiety
- Depersonalization and dissociation
- Impaired ability to make well-informed decisions
- Difficulty separating work and personal life
- Dread going to work (more than normal)
- Increase in work absences and showing up late
- Failure to commit to any overtime
- Increased feelings of guilt
Checking in with yourself and knowing the signs and symptoms can help you prevent compassion fatigue or stop it before it becomes unmanageable. The first step to preventing or managing compassion fatigue is knowing what it is and the signs it is happening. Unless you know what is happening, it can easily get to a point where it is very hard to manage and decrease on your own.
Ways to Cope with Compassion Fatigue:
- Practice self-care. There is no other way to say it, self-care is one of the most important ways to cope with many different stressors of the job. I will provide some information about self-care, but I wrote an early blog just focused on self-care, so please look at that resource if you want more information!
“Overworking is often at the heart of compassion fatigue and its first cousin: vicarious trauma,” Urdang said. “Taking the very best care of yourself includes setting limits.”
Self-care can include:
- Balanced, nutritious diet
- Regular exercise
- Restful sleep routine
- Balancing work and personal time
- Taking care of your emotional and physical needs. VERY important when working with others.
- Checking in when you need a break or just a drink of water.
Making sure you meet your emotional and physical needs is so important throughout the day. There will be moments when you cannot meet that need immediately, but when you are done with the stressful situation, take a break, grab water, acknowledge your emotions. Taking 5 minutes out of your work day to meet your own needs will not only support your mental health, it will help you in the other tasks in your day to be more present and getting things done!
- Set emotional boundaries at work. Setting these boundaries can help protect ourselves from getting to a point where we feel a lack of empathy because we are so drained. Setting emotional boundaries does not mean you do not feel compassion or empathy for your patients; those boundaries help maintain a connection while still recognizing that you are a separate person with your own needs, just like your patients. Ways that we can set emotional boundaries is feeling empathy while working, but creating a boundary. When I am outside of work, I do not think about work or the patients in my care. This can also be applied to when you leave the patient’s room. You will meet their needs when you are in the room and when it is needed, but you also have so many patients and tasks. If you thought about their needs all the time, you would be exhausted! This also comes with knowing your own needs. Do you need others to keep you accountable for setting emotional boundaries? Who could help support you in that? Some people that come to mind are supervisors and coworkers holding each other accountable for leaving work at work.
- Put time and effort into your life outside of work: your hobbies, friends, and family. Making sure you have time and energy to also participate in life outside of work is a way you can feel like not just a nurse, but also a human being! Making time for your own hobbies and spending time with people you love helps lower stress levels and improves overall life satisfaction. When we are just our jobs, when our jobs become stressful or not rewarding, it is very negative to our mental health. It is SO important to have a balance, so the one part of your life experiencing stress can be balanced by another positive aspect of your life!
- Seek personal therapy. Having a personal therapist as a support where you can check in and talk about work stress as well as life stress. When you have another person making suggestions and supporting you, it can help decrease overall stress and help support your mental health.
- Surround yourself with a support team at work. This can include mentors, coworkers, and positive relationships. It is so helpful to know that you are not alone and that you can lean on others for support in the workplace. However, it is also important to monitor those relationships to make sure there are benefits to the relationship so they don’t become just a space where you fall into negative thinking patterns.
- Create healthy workplace strategies. This is more on the employer to create, but these can be so beneficial for a healthy workplace environment overall when done correctly.
Some workplace strategies include support groups and discussions about mental health related to work, regular breaks, routine check-ins with the staff, mental health days, on-site counseling, relaxation rooms, and offering classes to support mental health. Does your workplace have any of these? How can you advocate for getting these if your workplace does not have any of these?
As always, these are only some strategies to cope with compassion fatigue. I have a list of sources that I found really helpful and can provide more information if you are interested.