Recognizing Signs of Compassion Fatigue in Nurses

For many who take up the stethoscope, nursing can be a “risky business” due to the emotional impact on those providing care. Compassion fatigue, sometimes known as compassion burnout syndrome, is an all-to-real consequence of caring for people in pain, trauma,, or who are near end of life. The very qualities that make you an excellent nurse are also some of the factors which put you at risk for compassion fatigue.

The best nurses possess a fair amount of empathy, an ability to connect with their patients and their families, attention to the needs of the patient no matter how small, and a diligence and devotion that rivals any other vocation. Unfortunately those attributes also make the best nurses highly susceptible to burnout from compassion fatigue.

Recognizing and Understanding Compassion Fatigue

By virtue of the term, compassion fatigue should be easy to recognize, right? Not so when you’re in the thick of things. Your work is all consuming. You don’t have the time to hit the pause button for necessary breaks. Physicians are asking for vital information, you’re juggling demands of family, routine charting, distributing meds, and overall patient care. The last thing you can do is stop and assess your emotional state.

Your shift begins pretty is long and you need to be on your game. People are pulling you in every direction. Administrative duties demand your time and you know if you could just spend a little more time with a justifiably needy patient you would feel you’re doing the job you expected. When you have a patient code, or something goes wrong, and you have to keep going, those emotional feelings must go somewhere.

On your way home you begin to cry. You can’t put your finger on it, but you know you just want to get away and be by yourself and indulge in some tears, maybe a glass or two of wine, and about 72 hours in bed. These are signs of of compassion fatigue.

In addition to feeling physically and emotionally exhausted, there are some less obvious signs of compassion fatigue. Here are some other signs:

Reduced Empathy/Sympathy and Detachment: You no longer feel an emotional connection to your patients.

Dread and Guilt: You dread going to work, caring your patients, and for this you feel and immense guilt.

Over-The-Top Sensitivity or Insensitivity to Emotional Situations: You become extremely emotional over a patient’s care, or you feel nothing at all in a critical situation.

Headaches: Frequently without cause.

Insomnia: Inability to get or stay asleep.

Weight Loss or Gain: You have no appetite, or binge eat without concern.

Inability to Make Decisions: Even the simplest decisions cause you to waffle.

Diminished Sense of Fulfillment: Your career no longer feels rewarding.

Poor Work/Life Balance: You can’t leave work behind and find you are frequently distracted.

Relationships Suffer: Your spouse feels ignored, you haven’t spoken to family in weeks, you don’t see your friends regularly.

Addressing Your Compassion Fatigue

Acknowledging you are suffering from compassion fatigue is the first step to overcoming this occupational hazard before it wrecks your career. Next you need to take action. Here are some things you can do to help quell your fatigue and get back on track:

Practice Self-Care: This is essential in order to prevent or bounce back from compassion fatigue. Take care of yourself first, so that you are able to not only provide care for others, but find joy in your personal life. Eat a nutritional diet, find a physical you enjoy regularly, follow a regular sleep schedule to ensure you’re well rested, pursue leisure activities, and recognize when you need to honor your emotions.

Set Emotional Boundaries: When you don’t set clear and solid parameters for your emotional involvement you can become overwhelmed by everything. Take the time to step away from those individuals who drain you. Practice a few minutes of mindfulness in a quiet area. Breathe, try to relax, and come into the moment.

Pursue Other Interests: Have some fun! Go out with friends, go hiking, shopping, or, when possible unplug and escape for the weekend. Take a class that has nothing to do with nursing.

Find a Coping Strategy: Journaling, meditation, regular massages,, or simply binge-watching a good, lighthearted comedy can help you take a mental break. Avoid drugs and alcohol.

Find a Good Therapist: Sometimes it becomes necessary for you to talk with a professional. If you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed and can’t seem to shake it, find a therapist to whom you can turn for some additional coping skills.

What Employers Can Do

Finally, it should be incumbent upon employers to help their nursing staff cope with the emotional demands of the job. Encourage your employer to offer:

Support Groups: Who better to confide in than coworkers dealing with the same ins-and-outs of patient care?

Mental Health Days: When you need a break from providing patient care your employer should provide it with no questions asked. They can easily partner with a staffing agency to ensure your duties are covered and you are able to get away from it all, even for 24 hours.

Onsite Counseling: A professional to whom you can turn when necessary.

In addition, for those in particularly difficult environments such as oncology, trauma, ICU, and the like, your employer should have a professional check in with you regularly. They can spot compassion fatigue in it’s early days. Some employers offer “self care days” to those at high risk. This includes demonstrations of relaxation techniques, a support session, and even a spa-day.

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