Meet the Expert: Catherine Burger, MSOL, RN, NEA-BC has worked as an RN for almost 30 years in numerous patient care and leadership specialties. She has firsthand experience with compassion fatigue and secondary traumatic stress.
Working in the medical field means helping others through disease, illness, and injury. The rewards that come from this line of work are immense, but experiencing secondhand trauma can take its toll, as well. Compassion fatigue refers to the emotional, physical, cognitive, and behavioral drain that can develop in a healthcare professional, making it more difficult to empathize with those in their care.
While burnout manifests in anger, frustration, or negativity towards others, compassion fatigue often results in sadness, avoidance, nightmares, and detachment. Understanding the differences between the two and recognizing the key signs that you might be suffering from compassion fatigue represent the first (and most critical) steps to getting help. Use our self-assessment quiz, hear from nurses in the know, and find numerous resources to learn more and take action.
Compassion Fatigue Basics
Many nurses and medical professionals may be familiar with the concept of compassion fatigue, but not fully understand all the short- and long-term implications. Put simply, compassion fatigue happens when individuals become too physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted due to the demands of the job. Given the pressure of medical work, people in these roles are at much higher risks for developing compassion fatigue than, say, an accountant.
The Process: Steps to Fatigue
Many compassion fatigue resources available today share with readers the common symptoms and how to move past them, but few offer concrete information on how someone might develop compassion fatigue in the first place.
When considering the daily responsibilities of nurses and other medical staff, it’s easy to see how the stress and secondary trauma experienced in their days can lead to compassion fatigue, but let’s take a look at each step along the way.
Clearing Up Terminology
Given that compassion fatigue exists as a relatively new psychological diagnosis, there’s still a lot of ambiguity surrounding how to differentiate and define other, somewhat related, terms. There’s lots of conflicting information out there, but we’re here to bring clarity. The following table looks at some of the more common terms and helps distinguish between each.
Self-Assessment Questionnaire: Are You Vulnerable?
After learning about the unique properties of compassion fatigue and how it differs from burnout, you might be wondering how (if at all) this concept fits into your life. While many medical professionals experience compassion fatigue at some point in their careers, taking time to complete a self-assessment is the first step in identifying underlying issues and seeking help. The following questionnaire can be used to help you assess whether you’re at risk or if you’re already experiencing compassion fatigue. Use the key at the end to help you determine which next steps to take.
If you answered “yes” to five or more of these questions, you may be experiencing compassion fatigue. Review the additional warning signs and symptoms in the following section to get a better sense of whether you may need help.
Additional Warning Signs and Symptoms
Compassion fatigue can manifest in myriad ways. Some people may find that it mainly effects their emotional and physical health, while others may also notice symptoms within their behavioral and cognitive functions. Aside from using the self-assessment, be sure to review some of the common symptoms below and ask yourself if you experience any of these. It’s also important to remember that this list isn’t exhaustive; even if you identify with a few of them, it’s worth digging deeper to see if you should seek professional assistance.
|Digestive problems||Grief||Overusing sick days||Inability to concentrate|
|Muscle tension||Inability to feel empathy||Disturbances in relationships||Shifts in beliefs|
|Fatigue||Feelings of dread||Shifts in sleeping||Avoidance|
Developing a Self-Care Plan to Manage Your Compassion Fatigue
After recognizing the signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue within yourself, it’s important to develop a multi-pronged approach. In addition to seeking professional support, you can also create a self-care plan to help put yourself on a road to recovery. When thinking about self-care, remember that you need to address six core areas: physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, professional, and relational health. By creating a holistic plan, you can adequately monitor improvements along the way in each of these key areas.
When reviewing the table below, don’t feel you need to do everything. Instead, try to pick one or two strategies and/or activities from each section that you can focus on. After working on these for several weeks, consider your current feelings against the list of signs and symptoms. Can you see improvements in these areas? If one of your focuses has been improving positive self-talk about work, can you sense improvements in how you think about challenging days? Keep these measurements in mind as you work through strategies. It’s also important to remember that self-care is never a substitute for professional care.
|Commit to a healthy diet||Work with a counselor/therapist||Spend time with people you love||Listen to/watch inspiring music or programming||Alter shift patterns||Cut out any toxic relationships|
|Create a calming space to come home to||Journal about your days and leave the bad experiences on the page||Create a list of self-affirmations||Spend time in nature||Take plenty of breaks||Identify individuals at work who can check in on you|
|Create bedtime routines and stick with them||Think about the positives at work||Make sure to laugh and cry; don’t hold emotions in||Create lists of things that give you hope/faith||Create a peer support group||Spend ample time with trusted friends and family|
|Find a physical activity you enjoy||Confide in a friend/colleague||Find an enjoyable volunteer activity||Post inspirational quotes in your personal space||Ask for mentor/supervisor meetings||Seek support from your partner/spouse|
|Take time away from work for vacations or visiting friends/family||Decrease stressful situations in your personal life||Keep a running list of moments that made you feel strong||Take part in a religious service||Create boundaries||Maintain boundaries with patients and coworkers|
How to Avoid Compassion Fatigue: Preventative Care
While much of this guide focuses on identifying whether you have compassion fatigue and providing actionable advice about how to come out of that season, it’s also important to implement preventative measures that can keep you from feeling drained in the first place. Tips for creating preventative measures include:
Resources to Take Action Against Compassion Fatigue
Still looking to learn more about compassion fatigue and how to combat it? The additional resources in this section can help you figure out whether compassion fatigue is creeping into your life and provide practical and actionable tools for handling them.
- Compassion Fatigue Self-Test: The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project provides a life stress self-test and an empathy test to help readers see where they stand on the scale.
- The Toll of Being a Care Provider: The Association of American Medical Colleges offers a look at the state of compassion fatigue and burnout in the medical profession, demonstrating the widespread issues.
- Professional Qualify of Life Scale: Looking to get answers about why you might be feeling down about work? Tend provides a professional qualify of life scale quiz to help you ascertain your compassion satisfaction, burnout, and secondary trauma scales.
- I Left Nursing Because of Secondary Traumatic Stress: If you’re feeling alone, know that others experience these same issues. Reflections on Nursing Leadership shares the story of former nurse, Dorothy Wright.
- Compassion Fatigue vs. Burnout: 3 Tools: Some individuals may not fully understand the differences that exist between burnout and compassion fatigue. Psych Central explains how they differ and offers tools to combat both.
- The Secondary Traumatic Stress Informed Organization Assessment Tool: The University of Kentucky’s Center on Trauma and Children provides this tool for organizational leaders to evaluate the degree to which their organization’s practice is STS informed.
- Compassion Fatigue – Are You At Risk?: American Nurse Today provides an overview of how compassion fatigue happens, what it looks like, and how to identify risk factors.
- Strategies that Reduce Compassion Fatigue and Increase Compassion Satisfaction: Individuals looking for a more scientific view of compassion fatigue can review this academic journal article and gather tips.