Students and Teach in Simulation Lab with Mannequin Patient and text overlay What is Compassion Fatigue?

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Staff Writer
Reviewed by Dr. Doug Turner
Oct 18, 2022

Compassion fatigue is a state of emotional and physical exhaustion resulting from prolonged exposure to trauma or traumatized individuals. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), compassion fatigue happens as a result of the depletion of the ability to cope with one’s everyday environment. Professionals who are regularly exposed to trauma or high-stress environments, like those in healthcare are likely more susceptible to developing compassion fatigue.

Compassion Fatigue in Nursing

Compassion is a precious commodity, especially in healthcare. Many students become nurses and OTAs because they want to make more than a living — they want to make a difference. A career in healthcare is meaningful work, but it can be emotionally demanding too. If the desire to help others and impact lives was one of the reasons you entered the field, compassion is often the source of energy that keeps you going. All healthcare workers must preserve their capacity for empathy, so it’s important to guard yourself against compassion fatigue when times get tough.

Related Resource: Empathy in Nursing: How to Provide Empathetic Care

Compassion Fatigue Symptoms

Compassion fatigue can be described as a type of psychological deterioration, affecting your ability to do your work or complete daily activities. However, this type of fatigue can present itself physically, psychologically, and behaviorally and can include:

Physical Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue

  • Insomnia
  • Exhaustion
  • Fatigue
  • Changes in appetite
  • Digestive issues
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Increased susceptibility to illness
  • Somatization (translating emotional stress into physical symptoms)

Psychological Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Drastic shifts in mood
  • A decreased sense of personal and professional accomplishment
  • Pessimism or cynical attitude
  • Becoming overly irritable or quick to anger
  • Experiencing detachment
  • Ruminating about the suffering of others.
  • Reduced ability to feel sympathy and empathy

Behavioral Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue

  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Secretive or overt self-medicating
  • Missing work
  • Anger and irritability
  • Impaired decision-making
  • Problems with personal relationships
  • Leaving the profession

Compassion Fatigue Test

Do you think you may be experiencing compassion fatigue? This free, online compassion fatigue test will help you determine if you’re suffering from caregiver burnout.

Compassion Fatigue Stages

Compassion fatigue doesn’t hit all at once. Instead, it is a slow phenomenon, broken down into four stages.

1. Zealot Phase

You are enthusiastic, involved, excited about work, and are committed to making a difference. You go the extra mile, putting in extra hours and volunteering to help, without being asked or ordered.

2. Irritability Phase

Feelings of enthusiasm start to wane, followed by avoiding work responsibilities. While still performing in your care-taking role, you may avoid contact with patients and their families, make small mistakes, cut corners, and occasionally lose concentration and focus.

3. Withdrawal Phase

Your enthusiasm for your work falls, exhaustion is more frequent, and the line between personal life and care-taking responsibilities blurs. The lack of clear boundaries results in irritability towards your patients. Your team, family, and friends notice your enthusiasm is gone and you are much more withdrawn.

4. Zombie Phase

While distancing yourself from those you are taking care of, you may also feel despondent and angry, and project this onto coworkers, viewing them as incompetent. Your irritability slides into disdain, hostility, suspicion, and blaming your patients. You exhibit hopelessness and even outright anger.

Compassion Fatigue Treatment

The key to dealing with compassion fatigue from a personal standpoint is to provide yourself with improved self-care. Improving self-care can be difficult for nurses, as they are accustomed to constantly putting others’ needs before their own. However, taking extra time for yourself is essential to keeping compassion fatigue to a minimum.

Self-care includes:

  • Taking time to eat well
  • Staying hydrated
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Staying active
  • Not over-committing yourself on a routine basis
  • Utilizing meditation
  • Getting a massage
  • Reaching out for professional help
  • Nurturing social relationships
  • Avoiding information overload
  • Identifying your priorities and engaging in activities that replenish and rejuvenate you
  • Practicing gratitude and being in the present moment
  • Focusing on areas that you have control over

Related Resource: 50 Self-Care Ideas for Nurses to Recharge

How to Prevent Compassion Fatigue

There are many ways to prevent or ease the effects of compassion fatigue. Self care, creating a routine, and building work relationships are some of the ways you can avoid fatiguing. Here are other ways to prevent or ease the effects of compassion fatigue include:

  • Set a schedule that works for you, allowing you to balance your work and personal life.
  • Make time for yourself by setting aside time to practice self-care.
  • Create a support system with other nurses.
  • Make work an enjoyable place, even in small ways.
  • Change things up by moving around to new roles, positions, departments, or geographic locations.

Compassion Fatigue vs Burnout – What is the difference?

While they might compassion fatigue vs burnout sound interchangeable, compassion fatigue and burnout are different problems.

Compassion fatigue refers to the negative emotions that individuals feel from helping others at work. The fatigue comes from helping others—you want to keep helping, but you are overwhelmed from being exposed to the trauma of others. It is also known as secondary trauma, referencing the way that other people’s trauma can become your own.

Burnout is a psychological term referring to a general exhaustion and lack of interest or motivation regarding one’s work. It typically emerges over time as a response to prolonged stress and can occur in any profession.

Related Resource: How to Combat Nurse Burnout



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