What is compassion fatigue, and how do nurses prevent it?

September 7, 2016

community nursing

Most healthcare professionals including nurses go into the field because they want to make a difference and help people. But caring for patients with various illnesses and injuries can take its toll and compassion fatigue can set in.

Although medical professionals, such as doctors and therapists, can develop compassion fatigue, nurses are at an even higher risk. Nurses are on the frontlines of medical care and often spend more time with patients than other healthcare workers. Many times nurses see how illness can impact a patient’s life. They see the physical and emotional suffering up-close.

How compassion fatigue develops

Compassion fatigue is a reduced ability to feel empathetic or compassionate towards the patients you treat. But if you start your career eager to help and make a difference, how does compassion fatigue develop?

When a person starts their nursing career, they are often enthusiastic and empathetic. But after years of dealing with illness, human suffering and tragedy, nurses can become overwhelmed and both physically and emotionally exhausted.

Additional factors also increase the chances a nurse will develop compassion fatigue. For example, if you are chronically short-staffed you may have to rush through your work to complete everything. Always rushing through your tasks may decrease the personal interactions you have with your patients and compassion starts to take a back seat.

Consequences of compassionate fatigue

Compassion fatigue has negative consequences that affect your coworkers, patients and yourself. Developing compassion fatigue often leads to nursing burnout. If you’re burnt-out from your job, you’re probably more likely to call in sick and not give one hundred percent when you are at work.

The quality of care you give may not be as good as it was in the past. Although you may still perform your duties, your lack of empathy may show.

If you have compassion fatigue, it also can have negative effects on your life. Work may seem overwhelming and stressful. You might not get the same satisfaction when you go to work. In fact, you might even start to dread your workdays.

Preventing compassion fatigue  

Although nursing can be tough, compassion fatigue is not inevitable. There are ways to prevent it from developing. For example, know the warning signs, such as:

  • Increased anger
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of compassion
  • Decreased interest in your job
  • Difficulty concentrating at work
  • Inability to make decisions on the job
  • Disruption in your life outside of work

If you notice you have any of the signs of compassion fatigue, get help. Talk to a co-worker, counselor or a trusted friend about your feelings. Sometimes talking things out helps put it in perspective.

Also, find healthy ways to recharge and relax after work. Whether you go for a walk, exercise or go to the movies, pursue activities you enjoy.

Make sure you allow yourself time off from work when needed. You can’t expect your car to run without fuel and neither can you. Vacations and days off give you time to renew your mind and body. When you’re off work, do your best to leave work behind and be present in what you’re doing at the moment.


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Gap Medics provides year-round hospital work experience for people aged 16 and over. Our shadowing placements offer a unique insight into the work of doctors, nurses, midwives and dentists – helping students to focus their career aspirations before embarking upon medical training.