Compassion fatigue is a real problem in the healthcare industry. Professionals, particularly nurses, must fulfill a myriad of duties in addition to working extensively long hours. With the influx of new patients, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, many are overworked and become apathetic with time.
Recognizing the signs of compassion fatigue and taking steps to combat it is important to ensuring that you continue to enjoy your job and provide the most efficient and effective care possible when you’re treating and interacting with patients.
Compassion fatigue might make you feel overwhelmed or feel like you’re drowning in disappointment with your job, but you don’t have to sit in that rut in your career. In fact, feeling a little bit of compassion fatigue is completely normal within the healthcare industry, and everybody goes through it at some point. So you can rest assured knowing that you’re not alone in dealing with your struggles, and there are ways to get over some of the compassion fatigue that you’re feeling.
Getting over your compassion fatigue takes time and work, but simple changes throughout your daily routine will make it easier for you to get back to your normal routine in no time. We have outlined the definitive guide for you to figure out what is compassion fatigue, determine if you have it, and the steps to take to avoid or overcome compassion fatigue.
According to the CFAP, it can be described as "a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it 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." In other words, individuals can care so much about who or what they're trying to help that it becomes dangerous for themselves.
In the healthcare industry, compassion fatigue arises when you develop a close connection with your patients and feel burdened by the suffering that your patients are going through. Healthcare professionals experience compassion fatigue because they closely interact with their patients on a daily basis and they see what they’re going through. In addition, the knowledge of the healthcare industry, treatment methods, previous experience, and more help to add on to the burden you already feel for your patients because you understand what their future ordeal looks like as well while they undergo their care.
That burden can wear on you over a period of time, and it’s completely normal to experience compassion fatigue when the healthcare industry demands so much of you all the time.
Caring too much can cause people to completely disregard their own well-being in order to focus more of their attention on the patient, bringing out self-destructive behaviors like failing to eat properly, prioritize sleep, or maintain good hygiene. While we're all taught a young age that we should care about the needs of others, some have taken the lesson too literally.
Despite being in the medical industry, these individuals aren't living very healthy lives due to the emotional toll their position takes on their private lives. They don't eat regularly and when they do, it's mostly fast food; and they never seem to sleep the recommended 8 hours.
To add to the pressure, many healthcare professionals who experience compassion fatigue have little autonomy or authority. They're usually can't make tough calls and are dependent on supervisors and physicians to tell them what to do.
They can't work effectively because they have to tip-toe around every corner. They have to get proper permission before they do certain tasks, even though those tasks are well within their boundaries of experience. It stops them from doing simple tasks. Instead of critical thinking and deciding what's best for the individual patient, their workload generally depends on inflexible protocols and avoiding institutional penalties.
The good news is that compassion fatigue isn’t limited to the healthcare industry. Nearly every industry can be affected by compassion fatigue in some way, as compassion fatigue can also arise from natural or external events. When a major event occurs that affects a large number of individuals, it’s frequently broadcast on every platform possible, which generates more potential exposure to you being affected by it.
For instance, when a catastrophe happens that affects a large number of individuals, you might develop compassion fatigue in those scenarios as well. In our society today, we are often overloaded with the suffering of others because it “creates good television” or “creates good ratings”. In other words, you might not be suffering from compassion fatigue from your job, but when you go home you are inundated with external factors that add to the compassion fatigue that you’re feeling.
Understanding this is critically important to making sure that you are aware of the factors or sources that could lead to you experiencing compasion fatigue.
As with any other disorder, we must first identify the symptoms of compassion fatigue before we're able to take the necessary steps to remedy it. Understanding the symptoms of compassion fatigue will ensure that you know what to look out for and understand how to treat each symptom.
The symptoms can include a variety of ways to be treated, and they often require different changes in your lifestyle to manage each one. We will talk a little bit about each symptom so you can determine whether or not you have them, but the most common symptoms of compassion fatigue include:
Now that we’ve listed the most common symptoms of compassion fatigue, we are also going to detail a little bit about each symptom so you can identify and learn a bit more about whether or not you feel like you’re experiencing some of those symptoms.
• Emotional Coldness — Also commonly referred to as emotional detachment, you feel as if you have an inability to care for others.
• Excessively Complaining — You find that it’s really easy to complain about things that bother you, but didn’t in the past.
• Isolating Yourself — You increasingly find ways to avoid spending time with others or participate in group activities.
• Overspending, Overeating, Gambling, or Other Addictions — You increasingly find that you’re over-indulging in unsavory things like unhealthy eating habits, spending too much money when you know you should be saving, or other addictions that are bad for your health.
• Poor or Non-Existant Personal Hygiene — You catch yourself not showering or shaving for weeks at a time, or have even received complaints from others about how you are dressed or the way you smell.
• Sudden Legal or Debt Issues — You find yourself getting in trouble with the law or with financial concerns because you don’t want to put the time or effort into paying your bills on time.
• Flashbacks of Traumatic Events — You find that you’re experiencing flashbacks to traumatic events that you previously got over or haven’t had in a long time.
• An Inability To Concentrate — You have an inability to make effective decisions, are unable to perform basic or complicated tasks, lack mental energy to concentrate, or lack focus in your personal and professional life.
• Chronic and Sudden Physical Ailments — You find that you keep getting sick or are dealing with health issues that continue to linger even though you’ve never experienced them before.
• Constantly Mentally and/or Physically Tired — You find yourself waking up feeling like you just ran a mile and don’t know how you’re going to get through the day frequently because you’re just so tired either mentally or physically, sometimes both.
• Apathetic, Sad, and/or Uninterested — You find that you’re increasingly sad about some of the normal things that go on in life. You also find that you’re more emotional about things that never bothered you in the past or aren’t that big of a deal.
• Substance Abuse — You begin to engage in external substances to find relief for some of the fatigue that you’re experiencing.
• Denial — You refuse to believe that you have an issue or that you have done something wrong with increasing regularity.
• Loss of Pleasure In Life — Increasingly, you find that things just don’t give you the same satisfaction that you once had and you no longer see the point in them or engaging in those activities.
• Feeling Burdened By Suffering of Others — You begin to take the burden of others’ suffering upon your shoulders with the mindset that you have to help them in some form or another by taking their sufferings.
• Difficulty Concentrating — You find that you can concentrate, but when you do you cannot put your full effort into it.
• Feeling of Hoplessness — You struggle to find hope throughout the day and a growing sense of despair enters your routine.
• Insomnia — You have difficulty falling asleep each night or find it difficult to get a full eight hours of sleep due to tossing and turning or waking up in the middle of the night.
• Blaming Others For Their Suffering — You increasingly blame others for the suffering they experience, and don’t hesitate to let them know how you feel.
• Holding In Your Emotions — You find that you’re continually holding in your emotions cause you don’t want to talk to others about how you feel, or seek outside support because you don’t want to burden others until it ultimately boils over.
• Poor Self-Care — You aren't taking care of your personal matters and find that you’re increasingly letting things slip by. This might include not taking care of your home or not cleaning your environment.
• Receiving External Complaints About Your Lifestyle or Job Performance — You find that you’re receiving a lot of complaints about your job performance or about how you are living your life.
• Feeling of Powerlessness — You have this sense of powerlessness when it comes to your daily routine or some of the things you’re in charge of.
• Depression — You persistently feel depressed or upset about things going on in your life.
In many cases, some people think that compassion fatigue and burnout are the same thing. Unfortunately, they are not the same thing as they often deal with similar symptoms but arise from different things. Compassion fatigue often arises from interacting with patients and their families, whereas burnout is frequently a result of your work environment or external environment that affects your mood.
Burnout might arise from the stress that you experience in your work environment. For instance, you might find that you’re increasingly having trouble with some of your coworkers, your work position, or your control in your job.
Compassion fatigue arises from emotional and physical stress or burdens that result from interacting or helping others that are in distress in your daily routine or professional routine.
An easy way to remember the difference between the two is that compassion fatigue arises from your work, whereas burnout arises from your environment.
There are several tests that you can take to determine whether or not you are currently experiencing compassion fatigue. These tests aren’t meant to be medical diagnoses or to give you a one hundred percent certainty that you are undergoing compassion fatigue but can give you a an idea if you are or are not experiencing some symptoms.
Some of the best compassion fatigue tests include: HealthyPlace Compassion Fatigue Test, Compassion Fatigue test from ACE, and Life Stress Self Test from Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project.
These compassion fatigue tests are all different and cover different potential aspects that you might be experiencing and should give you a good idea of whether or not you are experiencing some of the symptoms we’ve outlined above.
Now that we’ve outlined the symptoms that you might experience if you have compassion fatigue, some details and explanations of each symptom, and some self-assessment tests that you can take to determine whether or not you are experiencing some of the symptoms, we are going to break down the best tips to overcome compassion fatigue.
Overcoming compassion fatigue isn’t something that happens overnight. It frequently requires small changes in your daily routine or lifestyle to combat some of the stress that builds over time. As a healthcare worker, you will have to deal with workplace stress that can build up to be compassion fatigue over your career. Frequently compassion fatigue will arise and you have to handle it. Implementing these tips to overcome compassion fatigue as it rises will ensure that you enjoy your career in the healthcare industry.
The first thing you should do if you feel you're a candidates for compassion fatigue is to talk to someone who can help. Go to a trusted family member, friend, supervisor, or coworker and detail your troubles to let them know certain things aren't working. If possible, build a support system both at home and on the job. Things like better small breaks, rotating schedules or mandatory meditation time can go a long way when managing compassion fatigue.
However, sometimes supervisors don't care, or simply can't do anything for you, and that's okay. Sometimes just talking to a superior about your difficulties can help by putting everything on the table and letting them know that anything they can do for you will really help. A lot of the time, supervisors love to see their employees happy, so they will do anything they can to help out.
One thing that you should do besides talking to those you trust is to cultivate healthy friendships. Part of developing those relationships and establishing those bonds with people you trust is to first cultivate your friendships. When you cultivate your friendships, you can build your circle of trust and rely on those individuals later on when you need to seek support or feedback.
It’s important to cultivate those healthy friendships both inside and outside of work. When you cultivate friendships with your coworkers and peers, you have commonalities between you that you can talk about. For instance, you can talk about the struggles of interacting with patients and their families and the burden it places on you as a healthcare professional. When you’re talking with a healthcare professional that knows exactly what you’re talking about, it can create a better outlet for you to discuss what you’re going through than someone who doesn’t understand the stress that you’re under because they don’t have first-hand experience.
On the other hand, cultivating friendships with individuals outside of work is also important. It can feel like a breath of fresh air when you step away from work to talk to someone who can look at things from an outside perspective.
In addition, you can always find parallels to things that you’re going through with someone who is going through something similar in a different industry. As we mentioned earlier, everyone can go through compassion fatigue at some point in their professional life, not just in the healthcare industry.
Exercise is a proven stress-reliever. If you do find some time, take a break and get a walk in. Let your co-workers know that you are stepping out for a few minutes so they can cover any emergencies. Sometimes just getting outside can help relieve some of the immediate stress you feel.
Although it's not possible in every situation, sometimes you can find a little time for yourself to step away for a bit and regain your sanity. If you can't make it outside, just walk around your place of employment. Those things are huge, so there shouldn't be a lack of space to walk around.
Walking makes you happier, gives you more energy, and burns calories. Everyone knows that when we exercise we feel better, so instead of looking at your phone or watching T.V. and eating junk food on your breaks, get up and take a walk. Walking is one of the best things you can do for yourself if you are fatigued and stressed. Although time may not be your most abundant resource, you'll have to make the time, for your own sake.
If you want you should also look into joining a gym to participate in classes or engage in your own workout. There are plenty of great resources available to workout on your own, but working out with a group also has a ton of benefits. When you workout with a class or with others, you can hold each other accountable. When you’re holding each other accountable, you can ensure that you stick to a routine and work out some of the stress that you’re dealing with and the compassion fatigue that you’re experiencing.
Much of the time, healthcare professionals lead a very reactive, v.s. proactive, lifestyle. This means simply that they react to situations or problems as they happen, rather than planning ahead, causing unnecessary stress. Sometimes this is unavoidable because, well, we can't plan for everything. However, its important for your own personal well-being when dealing with compassion fatigue to organize as much of your life as much as possible.
Easy steps you can take to become more organized include automating the payment of your bills, keeping a detailed schedule or calendar, avoiding procrastination, make deadlines and be sure you're meeting them, regularly cleaning your workplace and home, and writing about anything noteworthy.
When you take the time to “get your house in order” you can remove some of the stress that you experience on a daily basis. When you remove the things that you can easily control that could build up over time, you can ensure that you’re not contributing to the compassion fatigue that you’re experiencing.
One of the most important factors regarding mental and physical health is your diet. In the healthcare industry, its no wonder so many professionals exhibit poor habits, particularly when compassion fatigue is involved. Most experiencing the problem stick with fast food or quick frozen dinners to cope with the stress and exhaustion of long care-taking shifts. However, this is something we all MUST make the time for if we want to lead a healthier lifestyle.
One startling mistake people tend to make is trying to replace the less-than-healthy foods they enjoy with healthier alternatives. However, this is a recipe for failure. When you try to make such a radical change, it can be difficult to stick to these changes and you end up regressing into an unhealthy habit once again.
Instead, start by reducing the portions of the junk foods you love, and adding new, healthier foods to your diet. On the job, yogurt is a great source of energy as it metabolizes quicker than solid foods and is light. Other steps you can take include prepping your meals for the week on your day off, focusing your grocery shopping more on fruits and vegetables, and choosing healthier snacks that are high in protein, like nuts.
When you have bad eating habits, you’re only predisposing yourself to feel poorly from a physical standpoint, and when you feel bad from a physical standpoint it eventually makes you wear down mentally. Begin practicing healthy eating habits as they will help ensure that you provide your body with the fuel it needs to work in the healthcare industry and ensure that you have the energy to fight the compassion fatigue that might take hold.
Water helps flush your body and revitalizes us. If you drink cold water, it can give you a rush that shoots energy throughout your mind and body. Cold water restores alertness and, if you splash it on you, releases adrenaline which is a hormone that energizes us.
But drinking it has lots of benefits. Consuming water, instead of sugary drinks, helps reduce headaches, keeps us clearer, helps with bad digestive problems (like we were talking about above) and helps us shed pounds. Since our bodies are made up mostly of water, we need plenty of it to survive and thrive.
Drinking water can help with joint aches and can release tight muscles that cause headaches and body pain. Most of the time we don't even realize we are dehydrated or thirsty. It's best to drink about 8 glasses a day, but if you're active, you should probably drink about 12. You will feel better, lose weight, and release tension.
Drinking lots of water is another part of restoring some of those healthy eating habits we mentioned above. When you drink lots of water, you are also limiting the number of bad sugar drinks that you typically drink to find energy throughout the day.
Mental and physical health start from within. Nobody can help you if you don't genuinely want to help yourself. So, if you're suffering from compassion fatigue, then you probably have a hard time saying "no" to others, but you have to. Whatever the case may be, whether your schedule is jam-packed or the task is simply too much of a burden on you, prioritizing tasks and managing your life in a more balanced fashion can go a long way to a healthier you.
Practice the aforementioned tips in unison with one another to lead a more balanced life. Take time to understand the emotional stress that comes with compassion fatigue, prioritize what you do for others v.s. what you need to do for yourself, communicate regularly with a supportive network, and work to identify subconscious behaviors that are manifesting from your anxieties. Most importantly, don't give up. We all slip, that's part of it. The only real defeat is failing to try again.
Another great method and tip to overcome compassion fatigue is to begin engaging in outside hobbies. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to find hobbies that you can do outside, just that you should focus on hobbies that don’t relate to your job or your career.
As we mentioned earlier, it can be a breath of fresh air to step away from your job and refresh your mindset by engaging and focusing on things that you’re passionate outside of work.
Now if you’re passionate about going outside, then go outside and find something to do. But you want to find something that you can engage in and focus on without having to worry about work. Take the time to learn a new skill or focus on something that you used to but no longer do because you’re so busy.
It can be really easy to feel burned out and develop compassion fatigue when you’re constantly thinking about work and the things that you have to do the next day. Take the time to find leisure hobby activities that you’re interested in and make time in your routine to focus on them to get a breather.
The next tip that you should consider to overcome compassion fatigue is to get educated about a new skill or receive some new training. Undergoing some additional education or training is a great way for you to learn a new skill or a new hobby that you’ve been hoping to learn for quite some time.
In essence, this is similar to engaging in some hobbies, but is more focused on developing you into a more well-rounded individual with your skills and talents. Have you ever wanted to learn more about marketing or learn a new program? Take some time to invest in your education and find free courses or cheap classes online that will allow you to learn something new and take your mind off work.
As a healthcare professional, it can be really difficult for you to set emotional boundaries when you’re interacting and dealing with your patients. The reason for this is because you interact with them on a daily basis and you get to know them from a personal standpoint. You get to know some of their interests, their passions, their personalities, and more.
Setting emotional boundaries is critical to making sure that you establish some separation from your work and your own emotional health. As a healthcare professional, connecting emotionally with your patients is important in making sure that you make them feel valued and help them understand that you’re passionate about getting them well.
The key challenge that takes a lot of time and effort is to set an emotional boundary between you and your patients. The key challenge is to remain compassionate without sacrificing your own well-being because you have become overly invested in their suffering.
A great way to set an emotional boundary is to make sure that you remain compassionate about providing effective care with them, but also realize that there is only so much you can do to ease their suffering.
The next tip on our list of overcoming compassion fatigue is to practice self-care. This essentially boils down into making sure that you are taking care of yourself. In a busy schedule of taking care of others, you can often forget to take care of yourself at critical times. Practicing self-care means that you engage in activities that help you take care of yourself like routinely sleeping, focusing on your own emotional needs, exercising regularly as we mentioned, and having a balanced diet.
Essentially, practicing self-care is the combination of some of the other things we’ve mentioned above. You cannot just focus on one aspect and hope to pick up the slack elsewhere. It’s a combination of all of the above.
As healthcare professionals, it can be really hard to avoid placing blame on someone or something. Placing blame is an easy escape for you to quickly relieve some of the stress that you’re experiencing and place responsibility out of your control. When you’re starting to feel compassion fatigue and you’re looking to place blame, we can often begin to place blame on some of our patients or close relationships like coworkers or family.
In all situations, you want to avoid placing blame on someone or something. There are going to be plenty of scenarios that are out of your control, like a patient’s well-being, and you need to avoid seeking ways to place blame on them or others. Instead, you should blame the situation that they are placed in or that you’re in. Avoid placing blame on individuals and your relationships will recover.
In the healthcare industry, employers frequently look out for their employees by offering unique training or self-help opportunities. As an employee, you should seek to find out what those self-help opportunities are and actively engage in them.
For instance, your employer might have training sessions on how to maintain a positive mental well-being or provide onsite counseling that you should consider looking into. Employers are making a larger commitment to ensuring that their employees are productive and that productivity is often directly related to how they perceive their work and how emotionally invested they are in their work. If an employee is always happy because they are beginning to experience compassion fatigue, then it’s something employers are hoping to correct.
Most of the time the mental well-being self-help opportunities are provided for free as a perk of your employee benefits, and you should utilize them whenever you get an opportunity. In addition, you can speak to some of your HR managers about some of the other things you can do like frequent breaks throughout the workday to get a mental break.
One fantastic thing you should consider implementing in your efforts to overcome compassion fatigue is to start writing or keep a journal. When you write down some of the things that are bothering you, you’re creating a positive outlet of releasing those built-up emotions that you’ve been containing.
Writing is also a great way of releasing some of those emotions to someone other than your friends and family. If you worry that you cannot accurately express some of those emotions or will be a downer amongst your friends and family, then writing is a great way for you to still relieve some of those built up emotions in a positive way.
Unfortunately, in today’s society it seems like all we see or read on the news is all negative. The reason for this is because radical stories or unfortunate news gets better ratings than positive stories. As a result, it can always seem like all we hear about is the bad stuff that is going on in the world. The good news is that you can remove this extra source of negative news in your daily routine by limiting the news that you read or that you watch.
While it is important to stay informed about the current events going around you, you don’t want to expose yourself to bad news all of the time. If you’re going through a tough time at work because your compassion fatigue is taking over and you come home to only learn about all of the other bad things going on in the world, it can lead to you feeling overwhelmed even more. Take the time to limit the news you read or watch and focus on a positive attitude to begin getting over the compassion fatigue that you’re experiencing.
As we mentioned above, you should seek personal therapy from sources that you have access to. Personal therapy might come from a variety of sources like your employer offered benefits and more.
A therapist is a great route to take or consider if you find that you’re finding yourself emotionally vulnerable, stressed, or need an external opinion on some of the things that you’re going through. A therapist is trained in the ways of listening to some of the things that you’re going through, and offering advice on the courses of action that you should take. In addition, therapists are great at asking you questions that are designed to identify some trouble areas in your life.
You might not think something is leading to your compassion fatigue, but an outside perspective could be the thing you need to identify the problem and course-correct.
One thing that can be really difficult for healthcare professionals is to come to terms with the reality of suffering. Unfortunately, as a healthcare professional you will witness suffering more than others in different industries. It’s an unfortunate reality of the profession and career that you’ve chosen.
As a healthcare professional, you have to come to terms with the reality of suffering as part of the job and part of life that you cannot control. The good news as a healthcare professional is that you can help reduce the amount of suffering they experience as you work to getting them back to full health and living a prosperous life.
If you let every little bit of suffering that your patients experience get to you, then you’re exposing yourself to a bunch of undo suffering on your own part.
Focus on the things that you can control, and try to eliminate the burden you feel when others suffer.
When you’re going through compassion fatigue, it can feel challenging to be grateful for the things that you have. But when you take the time to highlight all of the wonderful things in your life that you’re fortunate to have or fortunate to experience, then you’re already setting up yourself for a positive attitude.
Take the time to highlight some of the great things that are going on in your life so that you can remain positive about the future. If you only focus on the negative things in your life, you are only adding to the negative mindset that is building in your mind. When you think positive thoughts, positive things happen.
Earlier we mentioned that you should avoid turning to other substances and negative coping strategies, and the best way to do that is to use positive coping strategies to overcome your compassion fatigue. Ensure that you are avoiding some of the negative coping strategies like prescription drugs, alcohol, unhealthy eating habits, unhealthy sleeping habits, illegal drugs, or unhealthy lifestyle methods.
Instead, focus on the positive coping strategies that work best for you like taking a walk, talking with your friends and family, exercising, watching a funny movie, meditation, slow breathing, or relaxing in the pool.
Earlier, one of our tips was to be grateful and showing compassion everywhere is very similar. Showing compassion differs from the grateful tip because you should take a step back and be compassionate to yourself. It can be easy to adopt a mindset of being down on yourself or finding areas to nitpick about your own personal well-being or development.
Instead, take the time to show compassion about where you are in your life, how much you’ve developed over time, and how you continually work hard to grow even more. Have you learned a new skill recently? Have you grown in your maturity as a result of some of the things you’ve experienced on your job? You should celebrate those things and be compassionate about your short comings. Just because they are short comings now, doesn’t mean that they will be in the future. Instead of looking at all the things you’re weak in, focus on your strengths and be proud of those strengths.
As an example of how to do this, you might not be a good writer but you’re a very talented communicator. Instead of being upset that you can’t write a best selling book, you should be excited and passionate about the fact that you can communicate really well.
Focus on your strengths and be compassionate in your own shortcomings and you’ll begin getting over some of the compassion fatigue that you’re placing on yourself.
Another tip to overcome compassion fatigue in your daily routine is to try to find meaning. As a healthcare professional, it can feel like there is no meaning to some of the suffering you see or the suffering that you experience. One way to avoid this feeling is to try and find meaning in the suffering that you see.
When you try to find meaning in the suffering that you see or experience, it removes the feeling that everything is helpless or that there is no purpose behind it. Sometimes things are completely out of your control, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a larger purpose behind it.
Helping our healthcare professionals feel more appreciated, less overworked, and more autonomous can help greatly in coping with compassion fatigue, and lead to better patient outcomes. For those currently suffering from it, keeping a positive outlook and building healthier life-habits can go far.
(Article / Content Updated 2018)