Shadowing a Doctor

February 5, 2014

Compassion fatigue is a very real phenomenon that most healthcare professionals experience at some time or the other during their career. It’s not surprising too. A career in a field where you face life and death situations almost on a daily basis, combined with life’s other challenges is sure to create an environment that conducive to compassion fatigue. For a healthcare professional, experiencing compassion fatigue invokes the similar emotional stress as an individual suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. Attending to and caring for the needs of others day in and day out is more difficult and stressful than many people realize and providers are often stretched thin, both physically as well as emotionally.

Student Steph on the neonatal ward at Maharaj Hospital Compassion fatigue is the profound physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion caregivers experience as a result of being indirectly but relentlessly traumatized by tending to people in critical life or death situations. Studies that have been done on compassion fatigue in healthcare professionals show that the longer a physician or nurse is on the job, the higher is their vulnerability to compassion fatigue.

Individuals are going through this roller-coaster emotion, may not actually recognise the symptoms at first and are likely to go on working despite an increasing inability to maintain a balanced perspective of objectivity versus empathy. This lack of self-awareness could potentially become a threat not just to the health of the patient but also the health and wellbeing of the healthcare practitioner.

Recognizing the symptoms of compassion fatigue

There are no definite symptoms that mark compassion fatigue. In the beginning stages, it may mask itself as stress but over a period of time, it will eventually begin to have far more debilitating effects.

Some common red flags of this phenomenon include:

  • Withdrawal from family, friends and co-workers
  • Sustained lack of sleep
  • Inability to separate from work
  • Refusal to ask for help even when it is evident it is sorely needed
  • Loss of sense of humour
  • Skipping meals or forgetting to eat
  • Drinking more frequently
  • Smoking more frequently
  • Not caring about individual appearance

Experts say it is is possible to take preventative measures before things spiral and get out of hand but it takes a serious commitment to taking care of yourself first, so you are better able to take care of your patients on the job.

What To Do If You Are Experiencing Compassion Fatigue

Like any major personal issue, the most important thing is acknowledge you are having a problem. Talk about it with friends, family and co-workers or seek professional help. Trauma research indicates that talking about it or telling your story to a confidante can go a long way to defuse the tension. Saying it out loud to people who understand will get you the validation you need. It is equally important to get plenty of rest and watch what you eat, avoid or limit alcohol and caffeine intake and cut back on nicotine use.

Be kind to yourself. Put yourself in positive environments where you can truly enjoy an experience. If possible, take a real vacation. This may give you the break you need to maintain or regain the balance and empathy necessary to be an effective and engaged nurse.