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5 signs of compassion fatigue in nurses

As a nurse, you are called on to dedicate much of your time and emotional energy to your patients day in and day out. While your training will have prepared you well for this role, giving so much of yourself over time can become exhausting if you are not intentional about caring for yourself as well. This emotional burnout in nurses is commonly referred to as compassion fatigue. According to American Nurse Today, the official journal of the American Nurses Association, this condition is unpredictable and can happen to any nurse. Sometimes it can be triggered by working for a long period of time in a department such as oncology, that sees a greater amount of death, while other times it might be set off by losing a single patient that has special significance.

“Recognizing, managing and relieving these issues are critical for nurses and their employers,” Holly Carpenter, a senior staff specialist at the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health of the American Nurses Association, told the Wall Street Journal.


As a nurse, knowing the signs of emotional burnout is critical for continuing your career in health care, especially if you are currently balancing your job while pursuing an online Master of Science in Nursing degree. Consider these five symptoms to see if you could be at risk of or already suffering from compassion fatigue:

1. Irritability

Do you find yourself annoyed by little things? If you are easily irritated by your coworkers, managers or patients, you may be experiencing compassion fatigue. While certain things may not have bothered you when you were running on a full emotional tank, now even small annoyances may trigger an emotional reaction.

2. Depression or excessive feelings of sadness.

For many nurses, compassion fatigue is accompanied by a deep weariness or sadness that may even devolve into depression. This can often occur when the condition is caused by a deeply emotional trigger, such as several patients dying in a short period. Without proper time to grieve and process, your emotions may become overwhelming.

3. Trouble sleeping.

While nursing is a tiring field that comes with long hours on your feet, when you experience compassion fatigue, you may have trouble sleeping at night. Instead of drifting off once you get into bed, you may replay the events that occurred that day, or worry about your patients. And not getting enough sleep can compound the emotional exhaustion that you are already feeling.

4. Avoidance of patients.

If you are struggling with compassion fatigue, you may have a hard time forming relationships with your patients. In fact, you may even go out of your way to avoid them, especially when it comes to dealing with a patient that is particularly difficult or has a poor prognosis. If you used to eagerly volunteer to take on hard cases but now do everything you can to get out of them, you should consider whether you have compassion fatigue.

5. Detachment from coworkers

In the same way, you may find that you isolate yourself from the people that you work with as well. While anyone may have long days after which they prefer to skip happy hour and go home to sleep instead, regularly passing on outings with your coworkers – or even just avoiding conversations during shifts – could be a sign that something is wrong.


6. Feelings of numbness

Indifference or an inability to feel things deeply is a common symptom of compassion fatigue. When you experience a great amount of death or sadness regularly in the workplace, it may seem easier emotionally to just turn off those feelings, rather than experience all of the pain that you see while on the job. Consequently, when you suffer from compassion fatigue, rather than feeling depressed or agitated, you may simply feel numb.

7. Overall changes in behavior

However, your compassion fatigue manifests itself, the changes in your behavior will likely be noticeable to others. Maybe you used to walk in the door with a bounce in your step, and now you struggle to drag yourself in, usually arriving to shifts a few minutes late. Or perhaps you used to make friends easily with your patients, and now you try to avoid any personal connection. If a manager or coworker has commented on how different you seem to be, it may be a sign that you are experiencing compassion fatigue.

Dealing with compassion fatigue

If you believe that you have compassion fatigue, or you recognize the signs in someone else, do not keep quiet. If left unchecked, this condition can decrease productivity and increase turnover in health care organizations, according to a primer published in The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing. Some organizations offer courses specifically on the topic to help their staff members.

“There is a daily toll when you see so many sad aspects of things and people at the end of life, knowing how sick they are and knowing this could be their last holiday,” Jamie Bugg, an oncology nurse, told The Wall Street Journal. “We need better ways of coping than internalizing everything.”

In addition to learning more about the causes and symptoms of compassion fatigue, self care is critical for preventing the condition. Sometimes it can be difficult to take time for yourself, especially if you are pursuing an online MSN while working, but it is critical. American Nurse Today recommended establishing healthy boundaries with patients, taking regular breaks and engaging in hobbies or activities that you enjoy. You also should take time off when possible to give yourself a physical, mental and emotional break from the stressors of your job.



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