Nursing is as rewarding of a profession as it can be exhausting. Nurses of all walks of life and levels of experience eventually come up against the constant pressure. You know… longer shifts, staffing shortages, and the constant changes in healthcare regulations. Each responding in their own way. Although we’ve talked for years about nurse burnout, the term is a bit broad at times. It can include a variety of things, and it is especially heightened now in the midst of a pandemic. Beyond getting enough sleep, eating well, and generally feeling alert and well practiced, nurses work in highly emotionally-charged situations. This can cause a specific area of burnout known as compassion fatigue.
For the nurses working in intense medical environments like trauma units and emergency rooms on a daily basis, it can be very difficult to deal with the stress of tending to very serious medical situations. A study found that 80% of emergency nurses experienced compassion fatigue compared to other selected inpatient specialty nurses. Now, during the pandemic, where there are so many uncertain variables, these emotions are heightened. So what is compassion fatigue and how does it affect someone’s profession and personal life?
What is Compassion Fatigue?
To start, compassion fatigue is a specific kind of nurse burnout. For example, “burnout” describes the general state of being overworked, physically and emotionally stressed, and general exhaustion. However, compassion fatigue is when nurses struggle to relate to patients on an emotional level. This can prevent them from providing the most compassionate care possible. For nurses working in extremely stressful and emotionally taxing environments, this is a huge issue for the their well-being. It also creates risk as far as the safety and efficiency of a hospital.
The massive stress and emotional callousness that happens as a result of compassion fatigue is something that the nursing community needs to recognize. With staffing shortages and a pandemic already putting a strain on how much work each nurse has to take on, it’s important that nurses get the support that they need.
For nurses experiencing compassion fatigue, they display symptoms such as emotional distance, dissatisfaction, and an unwillingness to interact with others from a place of caring. Addressing these things with a nurse in your life or a coworker can be very tricky. It is common for people to dig deeper into unhealthy behaviors as a means of justifying their experience.
Three Ways to Start the Conversation
Research led by Dorothy Dunn, DNP, RN, and assistant professor at Northern Arizona University provides insight into the issue of compassion fatigue. Her research indicates that there are three general assumptions when addressing the need for treating compassion fatigue in trauma nurses.
• Compassion Presence – The standpoint of being present in each patient interaction with the intention to have compassion, rather than sympathy, pity, or altruism for someone.
• Pattern Nurturance – Paying attention to the interconnectedness of one’s own profession with the well-being of patients; essentially observing patterns of patients or stressful situations to gain insight and perspective on the value of compassion.
• Intention to Know – Recognizing patients as individuals and the unique values they hold as a way to promote energetic, productive, and uplifting interactions. Essentially, the facilitation of meeting someone’s psycho-social needs as a patient.
Understanding how to implement these three assumptions into one’s work as a nurse can help. By focusing on compassion, it can help you to avoid emotional, mental, and physical fatigue.
One solution to higher rates of compassion fatigue is the hiring of travel nurses. Consider working as one yourself! By lightening the load of permanent staff, or just throwing a new professional into the mix, the goal is to keep medical facilities as efficiently staffed and compassionate as possible. Additionally, recognizing fatigue and burnout in your coworkers and offering support can make a huge difference in helping someone overcome their difficulties for a healthy, happy career in nursing!