Symptoms, causes, and prevention of compassion fatigue

It’s no secret that stress among health care workers is a serious and growing issue. As many as 40% of nurses experience stress-related burnout. In fact, ComPsych, the world’s largest provider of employee assistance programs, reports that health care workers are responsible for the largest number of stress- and anxiety-related calls to their hotline.

What exactly is compassion fatigue in nursing?

Compassion fatigue can be defined as deeply physical and spiritual exhaustion accompanied by emotional pain. It is widespread in nursing, especially among those who care for the elderly or terminally ill. But the hectic “go, go” pace of hospitals make all hospital nurses candidates for burnout, as well. In other words, caring too much can indeed make you ill.

What are symptoms of nurse burnout?

Burnout occurs at work when you feel you have little control over your situation in the face of too many demands. It’s feeling rushed. That you could have done more for your client but didn’t have the time. Burnout manifests itself in many ways; some of its signs and symptoms are:

  • Anxiety and irritability
  • Apathy, loss of interest in work
  • Sleep problems
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Muscle tension or headaches
  • Social withdrawal
  • Coping by means of alcohol or drugs
  • Digestive problems

Obviously, most of these can seriously impair one’s ability to deliver quality nursing care. All of them can make life miserable.

How to prevent nurse burnout

All professions have stress, but nursing creates a unique level of compassion fatigue. Being committed to giving of ourselves, we sometimes forget to be good to ourselves. One of the world’s more renowned caregivers, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, knew this. That’s why she specified in her plan to her superiors that it was mandatory for her nurses to take time off from their duties to allow them to heal from the stressful effects of their caregiving work.

But time off is by no means the only answer. Here are 10 tips to reduce your stress:

  1. Don’t Pull the Trigger on Stress. The very first step in taking control of your stress is to recognize your personal triggers, helping you to avoid a stress response altogether.
  2. Manage your work-life balance. Make time for interests you enjoy outside of your job.  Whether they are active, like playing a sport, or quiet, like reading, it’s important to engage in activities you find enjoyable, relaxing, or fulfilling.
  3. Take care of you. Don’t underestimate how much your physical condition affects how well you handle stress. Develop healthy habits like regular exercise, good nutrition, adequate sleep, and minimal or no alcohol and tobacco use.
  4. Manage your time. There are few things that add more stress than running late. Plan ahead. Leave earlier. Do whatever it takes so you’re not always feeling like you’re playing “Beat the Clock.”
  5. Get and stay organized. Do you often find yourself searching for something you misplaced, forgetting appointments, or accomplishing less than you intended? Organization will help you overcome these issues, allowing you to be more efficient and productive – and less stressed.
  6. Resist perfectionism. Life isn’t perfect, so don’t try to be. If you feel you can do things better, then work on improvement, not perfection.
  7. Adopt a positive attitude. It’s true: Positive self-talk will improve your outlook, and when your state of mind is generally optimistic, you're able to handle everyday stress in a more constructive way.
  8. Talk it over with a trusted listener. Talking over a problem with someone who is both supportive and empathetic can be a great way to let off steam and relieve stress. But keep it productive – don’t get caught up with just complaining and gossiping.
  9. Ask for help. Talk to your supervisor and let him know what’s bothering you and work together to develop a plan to relieve some of your stressors.
  10. Take a time-out. Sometimes all you need is a few minutes to disconnect from your environment to prevent your stress level from topping out. If possible, step away and do some deep breathing exercises or take a short walk.  

Easier said than done, we realize. But a lot of it can begin by creating conscious, mindful boundaries between “work” and “not work.”

Preventing nurse burnout by practicing mindfulness

One other way to help you do the things to protect yourself from compassion fatigue is to practice “Mindfulness.” Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.

Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way, being present in each moment. Through practices such as yoga and meditation you can cultivate comfort with your own experience of living. You’ll be more aware of your surroundings, your emotions, and when to take a break. And you’ll find that your balance and inner peace are contagious to those around you, making thigs calmer and less stressful.

The calm of BAYADA in-home nursing

Many nurses find that working with BAYADA one-on-one in a client’s home helps mitigate nurse burnout and compassion fatigue. One reason is that, compared to a hospital, working in a client’s home is a lot calmer and less harried. Plus, you really get to know your clients, perhaps over years, and establish close personal connections with them.

BAYADA can also offer you a variety of shifts and hours, so you can better balance your professional and personal lives. Genuinely compassionate nurses are vital. And working in a supportive culture of caring can make you feel rejuvenated rather than burned out. And who wouldn’t want that?

BAYADA is a career and a calling. Do what you love!

About the Author

Keynote speaker and online program host, Elizabeth Scala MSN/MBA, RN, partners with hospitals, nursing schools, and nurse associations to transform the field of nursing from the inside out. As the bestselling author of ‘Nursing from Within’, Elizabeth guides nurses and nursing students to a change in perspective, helping them make the inner shift needed to better maneuver the sometimes-challenging realities of being a caregiver. Elizabeth received her dual master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University. She is also a certified coach and Reiki Master Teacher. Elizabeth lives in Maryland with her supportive husband and playful pit bull.

Subscribe To Our Blog

Download Our ALS Resource Ebook