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Compassion Fatigue

“Nurses need to look after themselves to look after patients” says RCN’s Kim Sunley, following recent reports that more Nurses are working up to 12-hour shifts without a break, food or, in some cases, even a glass of water.

We all have stories of the shifts where we did not stop, where no one was able to take a break or even possibly have a drink in 12 hours. These stories are often shared as a badge of honour, what we have endured in the name of being a Nurse. 

Has it almost become the norm? Accepted as part of being a Nurse? And what can be the consequences of not looking after ourselves?

Do you have compassion fatigue?

Every New Year thousands of people across the world resolve to look after themselves better, to get fitter, and be more positive. 

These resolutions often don’t last too far into the New Year, but what about Nurses, whose career is devoted to looking after others? 

They can often burn themselves out, becoming less productive and unable to form bonds with their patients when their own emotional systems become overloaded. 

It can be exhausting being compassionate and taking in other people’s pain on a full-time basis. This condition is recognised as Compassion Fatigue. 

First diagnosed in Nurses caring for trauma victimsm back in the 1950s, it has been highlighted again in the last couple of years, with stories of Nurses neglecting themselves and, in turn, not being able to fully look after the patients in their care. 

How do you know if you have Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is defined by many variables, among them are:

  • Avoidance or dread of working with certain patients
  • Reduced ability to feel empathy
  • Frequent use of sick days
  • Physical symptoms include headaches, digestive problems, sleep disturbances, and muscle tension, to name a few
  • Emotional symptoms include but are not limited to, mood swings, restlessness, irritability, oversensitivity, anger, depression, and anxiety

Research indicates that while one of these symptoms could validate compassion fatigue, generally it is a combination of these signs. 

What do you need to do?

  • Many employers have some kind of counselling program available and most Hospitals have pastoral care departments which can offer counselling and advice. 
  • Seeking out someone who understands the work experience, the unit, and patient population in question can help. A nurse manager, Charge Nurse, or Clinical Mentor who understands where you are working and the demands of the patient population can also be sources of assistance and support.
  • It is also important to find ways to disconnect from work. When not at work have other interests and take steps to keep work at work. 
  • Being proactive about your health—physical, emotional, career, and financial, can help keep compassion fatigue at bay. 
  • There is invaluable support available from your Nursing Union, the RCN. 
  • Group Supervision and Peer Support are invaluable and can be easily set up in the workplace for Nurses and their Co-Workers to provide support to each other.
  • Regular Clinical and Managerial Supervision is invaluable in identifying your needs and accessing support as a Nurse in a more formal way. 

Clearly, compassion fatigue is not a new problem in the world of Nursing. What is new is more recognition of the issue and awareness on the part of employers and the general public. 

Never underestimate the compassion of others; it just may not be as obvious since it isn’t part of their job description.

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