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Nursing brings a wide range of rewards, particularly the fulfillment that comes from helping those in need. A nurse can be a vital person on a patient’s road to recovery and healing, and it can be especially powerful for a nurse to see his or her patient go from being seriously ill to walking out the hospital doors healthy enough for discharge.

But nurses can be at risk for an occupational hazard called compassion fatigue, which affects people in a variety of helping professions, such as nurses, counselors and first responders. According to the American Institute of Stress, it is “the emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events.”

The site goes on to note, “It differs from burn-out, but can co-exist. Compassion fatigue can occur due to exposure on one case or can be due to a cumulative level of trauma.”

For nurses who routinely work with people who are injured, sick, in pain or otherwise needing care, it’s taxing to witness their suffering and feel a sense of responsibility for making them feel better. Though compassion fatigue affects different people differently, it has the potential to keep nurses from being engaged, effective members of healthcare teams.

How to Know If You’re At Risk

One of the best means for determining if a nurse is at risk for compassion fatigue is regular self-assessment. That means taking stock of energy levels and enthusiasm levels, particularly after stressful episodes, such as the death of a regular patient or a prolonged period of increased activity on a nurse’s unit.

It’s helpful, of course, for nurses to know and be able to recognize the signs of compassion fatigue as well as those related to burnout. Knowing what to look for goes hand in hand with being able to relieve those symptoms.

How to Overcome Compassion Fatigue

There are a number of steps nurses can take to overcome compassion fatigue if symptoms arise.

According to the Good Therapy website, one of the best ways to deal with compassion fatigue is to practice good self-care. This includes some common-sense elements like a healthy diet, regular exercise, good sleep, and a satisfying work-life balance. While compassion fatigue might deplete one’s ability to practice good self-care, it’s helpful to persevere with self-care practices even when it might be challenging to do so.

Setting emotional boundaries is another helpful strategy. Good Therapy has great advice for setting emotional boundaries: “Remain compassionate, empathetic, and supportive of others without becoming overly involved and taking on another’s pain.” That can be challenging, given how emotional patient care can be. But being conscious of emotional boundaries and trying to establish them can actually help keep the emotions at a more controlled level.

It also helps to develop a life apart from work. Cultivating friendships outside of a work circle, spending time with non-work hobbies, and seeing a therapist can all help a nurse feel like a person, and not just a caretaker. And that will ultimately allow a nurse to successfully ward off or overcome compassion fatigue, and continue to be a great nurse.

Learn more about the Mississippi College online RN to BSN program.


The American Institute of Stress The Cost of Caring: 10 Ways to Prevent Compassion Fatigue

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