"Compassion Fatigue" Endangers Care
Last updated:January 03, 2012
Compassion fatigue is a kind of secondary traumatic stress. It stems from witnessing the suffering of others and experiencing burnout from taking care of them. Now hospitals and nursing groups are working to combat compassion fatigue in an especially vulnerable population: nurses.
When nurses suffer compassion fatigue, reports The Wall Street Journal, their own health and well being can suffer. Patients suffer, too -- compassion fatigue can blunt good care by leading nurses to avoid certain patients, reducing their empathy, or even making them more mistake-prone. Hospitals and other businesses are taking note because compassion fatigue is linked to reduced productivity, more sick days, and higher job turnover in cancer-care settings.
Programs to resolve the problem teach nurses to recognize symptoms of compassion fatigue and activate self-care measures. These include relying on a support network, relaxation techniques, and focusing on "intentionality" -- the caring intention that led them to the job in the first place, while accepting limits. (You can only do so much in a given day.)
Among the symptoms reported for nurses suffering compassion fatigue: lack of joyfulness, headaches, digestive problems, muscle tension, insomnia and fatigue, chest pain and pressure, mood swings, irritability, oversensitivity, anxiety, depression, anger and resentment, loss of objectivity, poor concentration and judgement, and an overuse of nicotine, alcohol, and illicit drugs.
Sound familiar? Family caregivers may care for fewer people than the average nurse but are just as vulnerable to compassion fatigue and the same kind of burnout.