1. Murphy, Kathryn DNS, APRN

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The very thing that draws us to nursing-being a supportive part of a person's health needs-is exactly what can cause us to suffer from compassion fatigue. First applied in 1992, compassion fatigue is a term used to describe a syndrome that occurs in nurses when they're caring for a patient facing life-altering or life-threatening changes as a result of an illness.1 The compassionate nurse demonstrates both feelings of sympathy for that individual and a strong desire to stop the suffering. However, nurses can't always alleviate pain and suffering. Often, we become overwhelmed with the trauma we see each day. This is when compassion fatigue starts.


Some of the signs that compassion fatigue is starting include:


* feelings of tiredness before you even start your workday

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* lack of enjoyment in leisure activities


* compulsive acts, such as overdrinking, overeating, and overspending


* excessive blaming


* chronic physical ailments, such as back pain or stomach upset, that may result in the use of sick days


* excessive complaints about your job, peers, or assignments.



After you recognize that you're suffering from compassion fatigue, you can initiate the following changes to combat it:


* Take care of yourself first. Nursing is 24/7 and there's never a good reason for not taking your allowed breaks at work. If you truly work in an organization that creates unsafe nursing assignments, then it's time to change your work environment.


* Talk to friends, peers, and family about how to better balance your job responsibilities with your personal life.


* Take care of your physical health. Make sure you get enough sleep each night. Eat healthy food choices. Exercise regularly outside of work.


* Learn to set boundaries. When a peer asks you to help with her patient load and you have a taxing load yourself, say no. When a supervisor calls you on your day off and begs you to help cover a shift, say no. When a support staff member wants you to do his job as well as your RN duties, say no.


* Recognize your limitations. You can't stop all suffering or problem-solve all healthcare needs. You can be there for your patient without a need to fix everything.


* Recharge yourself. Make a list of all the enjoyable things you like to do, such as long walks, hot baths, visits with friends, or a massage, and put them on your to-do schedule. Make these recharging activities as important as eating and sleeping.


* Stimulate your mind. Nursing is a caring profession, but it's also a scientific one. Keep learning about new diseases and treatments. This will give the emotional centers of your brain a rest and wake up the cognitive centers of your brain for better balance.



Recognizing the signs of compassion fatigue and taking steps to prevent and treat it can provide you with the resiliency to make nursing a rewarding profession.




1. Joinson C. Coping with compassion fatigue. Nursing. 1992;22(4):116,118-119,120. [Context Link]