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Compassion Fatigue in Healthcare Workers: What Is It and What Can Be Done About It?

Can healthcare workers be compassionate to a fault? Is there a hidden cost of caring? Understand what compassion fatigue is and take action to feel better.

Compassion is the ability to express genuine concern and affection for another person or even oneself. It is the emotion that arises when one recognises the pain and suffering of another individual. While compassion is linked to empathy – the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes and see life from their perspective – the former is a more layered emotion. Compassion is often accompanied by the desire to actually do something to relieve someone’s suffering or pain. 

A growing number of studies have examined the benefits of compassion. Not surprisingly, being able to express care and concern for others can help one build meaningful relationships. Moreover, compassionate behaviours such as volunteering or caring for vulnerable people can boost self-esteem and self-worth. Likewise, expressing compassion towards oneself is associated with multiple positive outcomes. It enhances self-confidence, makes one more resilient in the face of distress, and can even act as a buffer against emotional struggles like depression, anxiety or stress. 

As a healthcare professional, you might already be aware of the importance of expressing compassion towards your patients. Being attuned to the pain of your patients can make you more effective in providing care and treatment. It can also help patients feel reassured, cared for, and calm in the face of difficult ailments and illnesses. 

Now more than ever, your compassion will benefit hundreds of patients whom you might be treating. While this can be a very rewarding experience, the act of compassion and caring can sometimes have a hidden cost associated with it.

As someone who is at the frontlines of responding to the health crisis, you might be dealing with new challenges and stressors each day. While caring for your patients, it is possible that you see and hear a lot of things that are difficult to come to terms with. Confronted with the bleak picture of how things are in the world, you might experience a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. This can lead you to feel that no matter how hard you work, it just isn’t enough. 

If this continues over time, you might even begin to experience a sense of detachment from your patients. Eventually, these effects can culminate into a state of compassion fatigue.

What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is a condition of physical and emotional exhaustion which interferes with one’s ability to empathise with or feel compassion for others. It is commonly seen amongst healthcare professionals who work tirelessly to attend to vulnerable patients each day. 

Compassion fatigue is often confused with burnout. However, the two are different. Burnout is the result of stress that accumulates over time and it often occurs in the presence of highly demanding jobs and/or environments. On the other hand, compassion fatigue often develops from caring for others who are going through a great deal of trauma and pain. Being exposed to such situations for a prolonged period of time can reduce the caregiver’s ability to express compassion and care. 

Compassion fatigue manifests itself through a cluster of signs. Healthcare workers who have reached the point of this fatigue typically experience the following:

  • A sense of indifference towards their patients
  • Difficulties with eating or sleeping well 
  • Feelings of self-hatred
  • Feelings of irritability and anger
  • Difficulty concentrating on things
  • Withdrawal from loved ones
  • Coping through unhelpful behaviours (e.g. drugs, alcohol)
  • Very low job satisfaction

Do any of these signs seem familiar to you? If they do, it is possible that you might be experiencing compassion fatigue.

Untreated or unmanaged compassion fatigue can be detrimental to your work and well-being. The inability to express compassion and care for patients can have several negative consequences. For one, medical mishaps become more likely. Healthcare professionals experiencing this fatigue may not be able to make the best decisions for their patients. This can not only reduce patients’ satisfaction with their treatment, but can also interfere with health outcomes and recovery. Being unable to connect with your patients can also leave you feeling dissatisfied and dejected. In addition to feeling tired, you might struggle with intense feelings of guilt and anger.

How can you manage compassion fatigue?

While it can be scary to come to the realisation that you might be experiencing compassion fatigue, know that this phenomenon is not uncommon amongst healthcare workers. Moreover, once you are aware of the problem, you can take action to work towards your recovery.

Here are some strategies that you can use to address your compassion fatigue.

Make time for self-care

While you address the pain and suffering of others, it might be easier to put your own needs on hold, as they may not seem to be pressing in the moment. However, when you ignore your own needs, you can end up harming yourself in the long run and thus limiting your ability to be the best you can be for your patients. This is why the first step to feeling better is prioritising your own self-care.

Put this strategy in action: Recognise that your needs matter, too. When it comes to self-care, a little goes a long way. First and foremost, define what self-care means to you. Then, be proactive about incorporating time for self-care in your life. Do something small each day or week that makes you feel good. Journal your thoughts, meditate, or engage in your favourite pastime. You could even create a self-care routine that can help you unwind at the end of the day.

Set emotional boundaries

As a healthcare worker, it is second nature for you to display empathy and compassion when you see another person suffering. This can make it hard for you to set boundaries while caring for your patients – especially those who are in a vulnerable state. However, if you get overinvolved, you might internalise a lot of the distress that you see your patients going through. This can make it more likely for you to feel overwhelmed with your work.

Put this strategy in action: Recognise the importance and benefits of having boundaries. You have your own needs that need to be fulfilled as well. It’s okay to say no sometimes and to take time off when you need it. This doesn’t mean that you no longer care about your patients; on the contrary, it means that you care so much that you want to be able to provide support to them in the longer run. Be proactive about setting boundaries, and remind yourself that you are doing the best you possibly can.

Find your support

The tiredness and exhaustion that you experience on a daily basis can deter you from talking to  others about how you are doing. However, studies consistently show that social support can make us resilient in the face of challenges. Connecting with loved ones – be it friends, family members or even colleagues – can give you much-needed relief, support and care. Your loved ones may even be able to help you recognise concerns you are facing that you may not have identified yourself.

Put this strategy in action: While you might not be able to physically meet with your loved ones, there are different ways in which you can keep in touch. Use technology to your advantage – have a virtual coffee catch up, plan for a family dinner or simply get on a phone call with a friend. Find people you can lean on and share your feelings with them. Remember that people who truly love you will want to listen to you and support you in any way they can.

Get mindful

Do you go through your days on autopilot? With all that you have to do, you might forget to pause and check-in with yourself. While this is understandable, it can be detrimental to your well-being. Going about your day without being mindful can make it harder for you to stay motivated and inspired to work each day. A little bit of mindfulness can make a huge difference. Mindfulness is the action of staying in the present moment without passing any judgement. Being mindful of your needs – both physical and emotional – can prompt you to take action to fulfill them. This, then, can prevent you from feeling fatigued or burned out.

Put this strategy in action: There are multiple mindfulness techniques you can engage in. One of the most convenient strategies is to club mindfulness with an everyday chore or activity. For instance, while brushing your teeth or taking a bath, tune in to what you can see, hear, feel, smell and taste. You could even try a mindful breathing exercise for a few minutes. The idea here is to simply close your eyes and follow your breath’s natural rhythm. Finally, as you go about your day, pause frequently and ask yourself if there is anything you need. This will allow you to be in touch with your body and mind.

Take frequent breaks

When you are on duty, work can take precedence over everything else. Sometimes, this could mean that you are on your toes 24/7. Naturally, working non stop can negatively affect your body and mind. On the other hand, taking a break can help you feel energised and refreshed. Breaks can even empower you to work better once you resume. 

Put this strategy in action: As far as possible, decide in advance when you will take a break. Make time for short but frequent breaks throughout your day. During your break, do something to refresh and recharge. You could get a snack, walk around the hospital corridor, do some stretching, call up your loved one, listen to some soothing music, read a book or even write in your journal. You could even choose to do nothing in your break, as long as this is a proactive decision that you make.

Remember that you are human

You are bound to have bad days from time to time. You might also make mistakes sometimes. But being harsh or self-critical can be counterproductive. It can lead to negative emotions like guilt, anger and sadness, which can not only affect your ability to work, but can also impact your well-being and self-esteem. Being compassionate to yourself can help you get through difficult days without putting yourself down.

Put this strategy in action: On particularly difficult days, when you start to feel overwhelmed or lost, stop and identify what’s on your mind. Try to tune into your thoughts – what are they saying? You might feel that you’re not doing enough, or might believe that you’re being selfish for thinking about your self-care. Remind yourself that this is far from the truth. Like everyone else, you too are human. Recognise that if you don’t take care of yourself, you’re less likely to provide appropriate support to your patients. 

Rediscover meaning in your work

Compassion fatigue can make you feel disinterested in your work. Because of this, you might experience a sense of dread even at the thought of going to work. In such times, reminding yourself of what made you choose this profession in the first place can help. By doing this, you can rediscover your purpose and experience a newfound motivation to get through work each day. 

Put this strategy in action: Take a trip down memory lane and reflect on why you do what you do. Why did you get into healthcare? What about your work is important to you? You can even note down your reflections in a book or diary. In fact, it might even help to think about the difference you have made in the life of others. This can help you feel good about yourself and the work you do. 

These self-help strategies should get you started on the road to recovery. However, it is possible that you need more support along the way. If, despite trying out these strategies, you are unable to see an improvement in how you feel, you can always reach out to a therapist for support. Reaching out is not a sign of weakness and if done right, therapy can be a transforming experience. 

Remember – the world needs you, but so do you! You deserve to feel better, just like your patients. As you care for your patients and do a lot of good in the world, don’t forget to treat yourself with care, love and compassion, too.

References

How Can Medical Professionals Avoid Compassion Fatigue? (2020, March 11). Retrieved from https://www.ucf.edu/online/healthcare/news/can-medical-professionals-avoid-compassion-fatigue/

(n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.edumed.org/resources/compassion-fatigue-online-guide/

Understanding Compassion Fatigue in Health Care. (2019, June 17). Retrieved from https://scfnuka.com/compassion-fatigue/

Be Careful: These Are the Causes of Compassion Fatigue. (2015, August 31). Retrieved from https://www.ameritech.edu/blog/causes-of-compassion-fatigue/

COVID-19 associated rapid onset compassion fatigue. (n.d.). The BMJ. https://www.bmj.com/content/369/bmj.m1815/rr-4

Exercise 1: How would you treat a friend? (2015, June 10). Self-Compassion. https://self-compassion.org/exercise-1-treat-friend/

Mindfulness-based psychotherapy approaches for first responders: From research to clinical practice. (2018, July 27). American Journal of Psychotherapy. https://psychotherapy.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.psychotherapy.20180015

The potential for COVID‐19 to contribute to compassion fatigue in critical care nurses. (2020, April 28). Wiley Online Library. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jocn.153.

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