Compassion fatigue was one of those terms I heard thrown around when working in social service settings. I remember it being referenced in employee trainings and reacting with nonchalance. Who, me, get compassion fatigue? Me, not having indefinite empathy? Impossible!
And then I received a phone call that changed my life. I was told that my mother, who lived hundreds of miles away, was suddenly hospitalized and being evaluated for metastatic cancer. Over the course of the month that followed, I traveled back and forth between states and ultimately moved back to Massachusetts to care for my dying mother for ten months. In the months following my mother’s passing, I started an intensive nursing program at UVM. It was at this point that I was finally ready to have a conversation about compassion fatigue.
I knew that while caring for my dying mother was one of the most important things I have ever done, it was also one of the most stressful. I also knew that in order to preserve my own sanity and be present for patients in my new endeavors in nursing, I would need to be proactive about my self-care. While I still resisted the idea of experiencing compassion fatigue, the signs were there and I had just enough sense to know that I needed to address them.
So what exactly is compassion fatigue? According to Dr. Charles Figley, Director of the Tulane University Traumatology Institute, compassion fatigue is “an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.” And you guessed it, those of us who work in healthcare experience disproportionately high rates of compassion fatigue. According to a 2016 review of studies on the subject, compassion fatigue and related concepts were found to be pervasive in a wide variety of healthcare provider in many clinical settings.
While it is common for people experiencing compassion fatigue to suppress overwhelming emotions in order to keep up with both work and daily life, these emotions often find a way of resurfacing and can easily manifest as physical or psychological health problems. The good news is there are lots of things that we can do to prevent and manage compassion fatigue! The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project emphasizes the following self-care practices:
- Health-building activities such as exercise, massage, yoga, meditation.
- Eating healthy foods.
- Drinking plenty of water.
- Practicing the art of self-management. Just say no.
- Developing a healthy support system: people who contribute to your self esteem, people who listen well, people who care.
- Organizing your life so you become proactive as opposed to reactive.
- Reserving your life energy for worthy causes. Choose your battles.
- Living a balanced life: Sing, dance, sit with silence.
Click here to find out more about how to recognize, prevent, and manage compassion fatigue at the Compassion Fatigue Project.
Jude Stevens is an RN and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Candidate in the Department of Nursing and Health Sciences at The University of Vermont.
McSteen, K. (2010). Compassion fatigue in oncology nursing: A witness to suffering. Oncology Nurse Advisor. Retrieved from: http://media.oncologynurseadvisor.com/documents/32/ona_ce_1010-1012_7955.pdf
Figley, C. (date unknown). Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project. Retrieved from: http://www.compassionfatigue.org/index.html
Sorensen, C., Bolick, B., Wright, K., Hamilton, R. (2016). Understanding Compassion Fatigue in Healthcare Providers: A Review of Current Literature. Journal of Nursing Scholarship. 48(5). Retrieved from: http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.uvm.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=2282aa44-9c96-4ced-90d4-cd51a76484a2
Smith, P. (2017). Your Continuing Journey [from the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project]. Retrieved from: http://www.compassionfatigue.org/pages/nextsteps.html
Murray, S.G. (2016). Compassion Fatigue UK. Retrieved from: http://www.compassionfatigueuk.org/for-volunteers-what-can-i-do/