empathy in nursing

How to Increase Empathy in Nursing

It seems safe to assume that virtually all individuals who first envision themselves as nurses, picture compassionate and caring interactions. In fact, many nurses and healthcare professionals experienced a personal or family member’s health crisis as a child. In such an experience the individual sees what a huge difference expert clinical and compassionate care can make.

How then, does the following scenario exist, let alone become commonplace in a hospital?

A patient puts the call bell on, needing to ask for assistance to the bathroom. The call bell is answered, and the patient is told that someone will be in shortly to provide assistance. After nearly 20 minutes, the patient puts the call bell light on again, and was told someone would be in soon.

A few minutes later, without someone appearing, the patient is no longer able to refrain from urinating. The patient chooses not to get up on his own and consequently had an accident in bed.  

Embarrassed and humiliated, the patient puts the call back on again, stating he had an accident in bed. The voice on the other end of the call bell is abrasive and abruptly announces “bed____ wet the bed and needs to be cleaned up.”

A few minutes later, a staff member enters the room and assists the patient to the chair, visibly annoyed at having to change the bed. The staff member proceeds to change the bed in silence, as the patient’s remorse for the accident deepens. During shift hand off report at the bedside, the nurse states that the patient was incontinent earlier in the shift. 

The Need for Affective Empathy in Nursing

What happened between the staff member’s first visions of themselves delivering high quality and compassionate care and associated behaviors with this patient?

The answer most likely lies in the reality of today’s demands on nurses and health care staff. For instance, it is not unusual for a nurse to be expected to perform ancillary tasks as depicted in this scenario due to staffing issues. Increasing clinical demands include high acuity, staffing shortages, constantly changing technology, the need to meet the institutions mission and goals, and more. All of this in the context of the need to deliver quality based care/clinical outcomes and patient satisfaction. 

Empathy is the ability to understand and recognize feelings in others and tune into their verbal and nonverbal cues. Extending compassionate empathy, in its most basic form, means connecting with another person by putting oneself in their shoes by responding with understanding. This of course, may be easier to articulate than it is to put into practice, especially when put under pressure at work. Fortunately, empathy does not require that nurses agree with the many diverse perspectives/experiences encountered, only that nurses respond with respect and understanding. 

How to Practice Empathy in Nursing

Many experts believe emotional empathy is a learned rather than natural skill. We learn subsets of the skill when others treat us with empathy or role model it. If you need to practice empathy, good place to start is by following the golden rule to treat others in the way in which you would want to be treated in their situation. This involves the following behaviors:

  1. Be fully present and give the person your full attention
  2. Utilize active listening and acknowledge the person’s requests or concerns
  3. Express compassion for what the person is feeling
  4. Build trust
  5. Demonstrate that you are committed to quality patient care and the patient’s well being