How Nurses Can Cope With Compassion Fatigue

how nurses cope with compassion fatigue

A nurse’s compassion has the power to heal. It also has the ability to exhaust the nurse’s energy.

Work that involves caring for and supporting others can be highly fulfilling. However, the exposure to ailing people on a regular basis can also cause what is known as “compassion fatigue.” 

Compassion fatigue, also called secondary traumatic stress, results from exposure to traumatized individuals. It occurs when medical and behavioral health professionals (ex. nurses, physicians, psychologists) take on the suffering of patients who have experienced extreme stress or trauma, explains the American Psychological Association.

The common signs of compassion fatigue include:

  • exhaustion;
  • irritability and impatience;
  • decreased sense of purpose;
  • sleep disturbances;
  • self-isolation;
  • anxiety;
  • emotional disconnection;
  • physical ailments such as muscle tension, breathing difficulties, and digestive problems.

Although they have similar symptoms, compassion fatigue is distinct from burnout. Specific symptoms of compassion fatigue include impaired judgment and lower cognitive function and abilities, say nurse contributors in a NurseJournal article. These symptoms can be harmful to nurses and their patients. The impact of compassion fatigue on patient care has made preventing the condition a major priority in health care.

Helping Nurses Cope With Compassion Fatigue

The Covid-19 pandemic put an enormous amount of stress on people everywhere. Healthcare practitioners, in particular, carried the burden of caring for severely ill patients while also maintaining their own health and safety. The pandemic brought to light the mental and physical challenges nurses face on a daily basis.

Many nurses experience compassion fatigue, with 16% to 39% of registered nurses reportedly affected by the condition, according to the NurseJournal article. Most reports are from nurses working in hospice care, oncology, and emergency care. The impact of compassion fatigue on nurses was reportedly greater during the pandemic.

Preventing or recovering from compassion fatigue starts with awareness and acceptance. Nurses can cope with compassion fatigue using the following tactics.

  • Scheduling—set a schedule that is beneficial for work-life balance.
  • Self-care—an important part of preventing burnout and recovering from compassion fatigue. Activities include walking, meditation, reciting affirmations, yoga and many other forms of self-care.
  • Support—build a support system that includes other practitioners who can share motivations, feelings and struggles.

Developing mental resilience is necessary to maintain compassion and a satisfying well-being. Highly empathetic people often put the burden of others on their shoulders—it helps to focus only on what you can control. It also helps to understand how a pessimistic mindset is associated with compassion fatigue. High expectations, idealism, a view that self-care is selfish, lack of strong personal boundaries and an overdeveloped sense of responsibility can all lead to compassion fatigue. It is important for nurses to be able to communicate their feelings and struggles with their colleagues and supervisors. These discussions can lead to work adjustments that support mental health and prevent problems.

Although its mood and physical symptoms can be unpleasant and alarming, compassion fatigue is considered a normal human response. It is a set of symptoms and not a disease or illness. It is a temporary condition that with proper self-care, a person can transition out of. Awareness and addressing the signs of compassion fatigue go a long way in preventing it.

A Career Caring for Others

Compassion is an essential part of nursing. Nurses have many responsibilities and their caring nature is needed. The Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree program at Carlow University has coursework on managing professional issues in health care. Courses offer strategies that nurses use in the field to maintain healthy and fulfilling careers.


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