Nurses Dealing with Compassion Fatigue

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In these tough economic times, hospital budgets are stretched to the limit and nurses are increasingly asked to work longer hours. As a result, nurses are experiencing stress at every level. One condition that’s becoming increasingly common is Compassion Fatigue. It affects many nurses, particularly in end-of-life and burn wards, yet most are reluctant to talk about it. 

Compassion fatigue occurs when nurses watch a patient go through a devastating illness or trauma. They often experience helplessness and anger, especially when they are unable to do enough, say, for a dying child. When a patient cannot be rescued or saved from pain or death, nurses may feel guilt or distress. Hospice nurses; nurses caring for children; or those who become overly involved with their patients tend to suffer compassion fatigue.

The problem arises when nurses keep these feelings locked inside. Many fear it may be viewed by their superiors as job burnout and that it could affect their advancement. Others are afraid that it might jeopardize their jobs entirely. 

Nurses and aides who experience passion fatigue will exhibit symptoms similar to burnout. Displays of anger, sadness, despair, and hopelessness often accompany passion fatigue. Yet there are marked differences. Whereas burnout occurs when nurses are overworked or doing work they are ill equipped to handle either physically or emotionally, compassion fatigue occurs when nurses allow empathy to overpower their objectivity as a healthcare professional. The result can lead to physical exhaustion and psychological trauma. 

Evolving strategies to cope with compassion fatigue include requiring nursedsto take paid sabbaticals, enrollment in assistance programs and counseling. Nurse support groups can also provide an outlet for nurses to share their feelings. Trauma research indicates that people involved in traumatic events need to "tell their story" 8 or 9 times to properly cope and compartmentalize the physiological and psychological impact of their trauma.

A program that originated at Siteman Cancer Center in St Louis offers some very specific steps for coping with passion fatigue. They include:
  • Self-regulation. This includes learning exercises to reduce stress when a threat is  perceived.
  • Intentionality. This reminds nurses to adhere to their values and ethical codes and not be driven by the demands of others. 
  • Self validation. This lets nurses know that their work will positively impact their patients. It reminds nurses to focus on their own values and not simply react to the values or opinions of others.
  • Connect with colleagues.  For support and validation.
  • Self-care. This reminds nurses that caring for cancer patients can be emotionally draining and stressful. It says that to be effective, they must take care of themselves with time off.

Are you experiencing burn-out like symptoms?  Seek treatment and garner tools that will help you to cope!

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