compassion fatigue

Signs of Burnout and Compassion Fatigue:
A Case Study

Nurses who consistently work when short staffed may be especially vulnerable to developing compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue has been defined as diminishing satisfaction from attempting to do one’s job well, or as job-related distress that outweighs job satisfaction. 

Sometimes, merely being exposed to another person’s traumatic experience leaves a nurse feelings emotionally distraught. Called secondary traumatic stress, this is part of compassion fatigue. As one’s sense of job satisfaction decreases, compassion fatigue (can be equated with feelings of burnout) may ensue. 

As a direct reaction to a stressful work environment, compassion fatigue can stem from such experiences as short-staffing, long work hours, workplace incivility, and feeling under-valued.

Typically, the first symptoms of compassion fatigue are emotional. For example, nurses may feel bored with work or feel detached and short-tempered. Over time, the nurse may feel guilt or other negative feelings about his or her patient care. For instance, a nurse who rushes out of the room of a patient who is clearly lonely or frightened may feel a diminished sense of pride in being a nurse. 

As compassion fatigue progresses, physical symptoms typically arise. Many nurses describe feeling physically and mentally exhausted. Other symptoms may include feeling lonely and emotionally tired, isolating from peers and/or work-related activities, and declining work performance.

Clinical Example: Mandy’s Experiences

Mandy is a veteran nurse working on a busy orthopedic unit. The unit has 38 beds, most of which are always full. Once patients are discharged, the beds get cleaned and a new patient is admitted. This is common process for this busy unit. 

As a result, patient interactions may be limited in relationship to having adequate time to get to know the patient. Commonly, patient interventions are performed in a more robotic fashion based upon the number of assigned patients and time limitations.

Nurses rarely take a full lunch or dinner break, instead grab something to quickly eat in the break room. Additionally, there is little time for true professional collaboration in the rush to get tasks done. 

The little bit of time decreases the ability to professionally network and often turns into time to dwell on the negatives of the job, which only deepens negative feelings and makes things worse. Mandy finds that most of her conversations with peers are nothing but dumping grounds for complaints. 

So what are some effective strategies for dealing with burnout

  • Take time to self-reflect, think about what is important in your professional practice, in maintaining healthy interactions and relationships, etc.
  • Integrate self-care practices consistently into your day/life. For instance, take uninterrupted breaks, establish a healthy diet, exercise, listen to a favorite song or lyric, etc.
  • Invest in close positive relationships, maintain valuable social connections, etc.
  • Take time for you — perhaps 10 minutes a day to “get away” from daily stressors and negativities. Examples that take minimal time yet can be hugely impactful include, playing with a pet, child or talking to an elderly neighbor, taking a walk and enjoying the landscape, nature, etc. In other words, find your happy space, if only for limited times during work days and longer periods on off days.
  • Identify your colleague’s strengths and compliment them.
  • Smile more; a smile can be thought of as the shortest distance between two people. 
  • Give yourself a pat on the back by personally recognizing your strengths and contributions to others.