Overcoming challenges in nursing: compassion fatigue and burnout
Working in the healthcare industry can be incredibly rewarding. Every day presents a different challenge, and you will feel fulfilled if you overcome the obstacles and make a difference or improve a patient’s life. However, the job’s demands can sometimes affect your emotional and physical well-being.
Compassion fatigue is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion caused by caring for others suffering. It is a common problem for nurses, who often work long hours in high-stress environments. Burnout, on the other hand, is a more generalized loss of motivation and interest in work. Various factors, such as negative working conditions, chronic stress, and a lack of support,,, can cause it. Law enforcement personnel, healthcare workers, and first responders may fall victim to this also.
Nurses are at high risk for developing compassion fatigue and burnout. Day in and day out, they provide compassionate, empathetic care for patients going through difficult times. Over time, this could affect nursing professionals emotionally, even leading to a decline in the ability to provide compassionate, empathetic care. The good news is that nurses can recover quickly if signs of compassion fatigue and burnout are identified and managed early. Nurses can potentially prevent compassion fatigue and burnout by involving themselves in activities such as regular physical exercise.
The Covid-19 pandemic placed enormous pressure on healthcare professionals and the healthcare industry. But one of its most serious side effects went unnoticed: increased burnout and compassion fatigue among nurses and other healthcare professionals. Even before this, a 2007 study established that 37% of nurses working in nursing homes, 35% of those in hospitals, and 22% of those in other healthcare settings had been highly affected by emotional exhaustion. If the problem is not solved on time, the side effects can lead to medical mistakes, poor job performance, and high turnover rates, among other vices.
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Understanding compassion fatigue
Nurses become less compassionate and empathetic toward their patients when compassion fatigue strikes. This happens gradually as feelings of being overwhelmed and exhausted are experienced for a prolonged time without intervention. For instance, besides the exhaustion before COVID-19, nurses faced the bigger challenge of working in under-resourced and understaffed environments. Here are some of the emotional, psychological, and physical triggers that cause compassion fatigue:
- Facing extreme issues experienced by patients, such as visible signs of trauma and pain
- Witnessing patients’ threats of self-harm or suicide
- Having to deal with physical and verbal threats from belligerent patients
- Caring for patients with PTSD, anxiety, or depression
- Witnessing grief and caring for severely ill or dying patients
- Managing children with experiences of abuse and trauma
- A feeling of working in dangerous environments
- Working on a heavy patient caseload during long shifts
Compassion fatigue vs. burnout
In direct nursing care, experiences of burnout and compassion fatigue are often considered to be similar. But there exist elementary differences between the two; burnout is a larger-scale manifestation of compassion fatigue. Burnout creates emotional exhaustion and depletes motivation to work in a healthcare setting. Nurses who experience burnout have lower productivity, more self-reported symptoms of health complaints, lower levels of job satisfaction, and higher levels of absenteeism and turnover.
The onset of each of these phenomena is different; compassion fatigue is an experience of emotional withdrawal and physical and mental exhaustion resulting from taking care of traumatized or extremely sick people for an extended period, unlike nurse burnout, which is caused by job stress, compassion fatigue results from taking on other people’s burdens. Nurses experiencing burnout often feel disillusioned about their job and sometimes leave the nursing profession, affecting the hospital’s and industry’s efficiency.
Signs of compassion fatigue and burnout
Also referred to as secondary or vicarious traumatization, compassion fatigue often occurs more quickly than burnout. Warning signs vary among individuals and include behavioral, emotional, and physical symptoms such as mental and emotional exhaustion, a sense of disconnect between goals and work, and isolation.
Some more common signs include:
- Disturbances in sleep pattern
- Decline in morale
- Impaired behavior and judgment
- A potential for depression and PTSD
- Negatively impacted spiritual identity
- Decreased cognitive functionality
- A loss of self-worth, self-esteem, and hope
Prevention of compassion fatigue and burnout
To avoid burnout or compassion fatigue, healthcare professionals must learn to manage their emotions through professional development. Additionally, they should be in a better position to recognize the onset of warning signs so that they can seek help on time.
Healthcare organizations must also provide employees with the resources and tools to prevent compassion fatigue and burnout. A little reassurance can go a long way in boosting morale. The best way to help avoid nurse burnout and compassion fatigue is through enhanced outreach and communication and by adopting recommended best practices. These may include some of the methods listed below.
Healthcare workers can experience high levels of job stress, leading to compassion fatigue and burnout. These stressors are not only due to the demands of nursing but also from working in a culture that values other people’s interests. As such, nurses should take steps to maintain and improve their well-being.
Taking self-care seriously is one of the best ways to prevent compassion fatigue and nurse burnout. Nurses must take care of themselves throughout their careers and learn to develop resilience and positive coping strategies to help them through challenges.
Self-care is centered on five key factors which provide a source of affirmation and motivation:
- Proper sleep – Nurses need to get enough sleep. This can help prevent health problems like depression, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
- Healthy nutrition – This can help nurses make healthy eating choices linked to lower disease rates. It involves eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
- Physical activity – Exercising is an effective way of relieving stress. It can also improve mood. Active nurses are more likely to have higher energy and optimism.
- Relaxing – To help relieve stress, nurses should try to take some time off from work. This can involve doing something they enjoy or listening to music.
- Social interaction – Building meaningful relationships with others is another way to prevent compassion fatigue. Having a strong connection with friends, family members, and colleagues is especially important.
Employer-sponsored assistance programs can help.
Hospitals offer a variety of relief programs in a bid to combat compassion fatigue and burnout. The programs focus on educating employees about stress, suggesting ways to cope with workplace issues, and providing them with other resources such as counseling. Continuing education seminars help with relaxation and stress reduction techniques.
Employers should conduct an organizational assessment that includes health surveys and employee assistance programs. They should also implement programs that reward employees for their work, such as annual salary increases or bonuses.
Create balance in your life.
After leaving the hospital, many healthcare workers immediately start ministering to friends and family. Whenever possible, it’s important to ensure your after-work life should be a break from work stress and a haven from emotional stressors. Make time for yourself, delve into your spiritual side, find an enjoyable sport or hobby, or enjoy some family outings just for fun.
Healthcare professionals should also try to maintain a healthy work/life balance. This is especially important for preventing burnout and compassion fatigue. One way to do this is by embracing time management skills. Learn to prioritize work tasks and say “no” when necessary. Use time management techniques, such as delegating and prioritizing tasks, to create balance in your life.
Surround yourself with positive people.
Positive and supportive friends, colleagues, and family can help to relieve stress. Knowing that someone is there for you when you need them can help you cope with stress in the workplace. Therefore, healthcare professionals should try to separate themselves from negative people.
Choose your friends wisely, as they greatly impact your life. Avoid people who drain your energy and emotions. Licensed therapists and nonjudgmental friends offer a listening ear and are there when you need help. You should also attend workshops or support groups to help you deal with your feelings more healthily. If you know how to manage your emotional reservoir, you’ll provide sufficient sympathetic care to your patients.
Experiencing nurse burnout and compassion fatigue can be unforeseen in the healthcare system. Stay proactive, set boundaries, and look for strategies to prevent yourself from falling victim to these issues. When you have a plan of action ready before uncomfortable scenarios happen, you will lessen the pressure if something goes wrong. This will also place you in a better position to comfort someone without sacrificing your emotional well-being.
Keep your job stress-free by doing what you enjoy when you are not working. Please make a list of things that you are passionate about and do them. Make time for hobbies or personal interests like sports and physical activities to help you relax. This will help you replenish your energy after a long and stressful shift.
A big cause of burnout is the perception that your efforts don’t count. It is important to celebrate achievements and recognize that you are adding value to the lives of others through your work. The healthcare organization can implement a system to encourage regular feedback, which helps nurses understand how their work is contributing to their organization and patients.
Seek expert help
Don’t hesitate to contact a supervisor, mentor, or experienced nurse to better cope with your current work situation. These individuals will not only help you to identify ideal strategies, but they also understand the expectations and norms of the healthcare environment.
When nurses are overwhelmed, they can often be sensitive to criticism. However, sometimes the best thing to do is to seek expert help for a nurse in emotional decline, which is where a licensed therapist can help. Another option is to seek the advice of a professional nurse who has experienced and overcome burnout and compassion fatigue. This advisor can help you recognize symptoms and think about strategies to manage them.
A good mentor will be a support system for your professional development and serve as a role model. They can also help you find suitable stress-management strategies to cope with difficult work conditions.
The nature of nursing makes it hard for nurses not to be attached to their patients; as a result, they are at risk of developing compassion fatigue and burnout. Since these cases have become more prevalent, many hospitals have addressed these issues by providing support groups, counseling, relaxation centers, and other resources to help nurses cope with these stressors.
Turning your life around isn’t impossible; it is just a matter of making smart choices in your work environment. If you don’t have a plan for dealing with difficult situations at work, consider professional help from a licensed therapist or supervisor. By doing this, you will overcome the challenges you may face and enjoy the benefits of a lucrative career in nursing.