Compassion Fatigue: A Nurse's Primer

Barbara Lombardo, RN, MSN, PMHCNS-BC; Caryl Eyre, RN, MSN

Disclosures

Online J Issues Nurs. 2011;16(1) 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Abstract

Most nurses enter the field of nursing with the intent to help others and provide empathetic care for patients with critical physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs. Empathic and caring nurses, however, can become victims of the continuing stress of meeting the often overwhelming needs of patients and their families, resulting in compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue affects not only the nurse in terms of job satisfaction and emotional and physical health, but also the workplace environment by decreasing productivity and increasing turnover. We begin this article with a case study of a reactive nurse who did not seek help for her continuing stress. This is followed by a review of Watson's theoretical perspective related to compassion fatigue. Next we delineate symptoms of, and describe interventions for addressing compassion fatigue. We conclude by presenting a case study of a proactive nurse who avoided developing compassion fatigue and a discussion of future research needed to better prevent and ameliorate compassion fatigue.

Introduction

Compassion fatigue has been defined as a combination of physical, emotional, and spiritual depletion associated with caring for patients in significant emotional pain and physical distress (Anewalt, 2009; Figley, 1995). Although many definitions of compassion fatigue are now found in the literature, Joinson (1992), a nurse, was the first to describe the concept in her work with emergency room personnel. She identified compassion fatigue as a unique form of burnout that affects individuals in caregiving roles.

Compassion fatigue has been described among cancer-care providers, emergency room personnel, chaplains, and first responders, among others. This fatigue may impact nurses in any specialty when, in the process of providing empathic support, they personally experience the pain of their patients and families. We will begin this article with a case study of a reactive nurse who did not seek help for her continuing stress. This will be followed by delineating symptoms of, and describing interventions for addressing compassion fatigue. We will conclude with a case study of a proactive nurse who successfully avoided developing compassion fatigue, and a discussion of future research needed to better prevent and ameliorate compassion fatigue.

We authors are both Psychiatric-Mental Health Clinical Nurse Specialists (CNSs) employed by a large teaching hospital system in the Midwestern part of the United States (US). We have served as consultants to nursing leaders and caregivers. As consultants we have observed the effects of compassion fatigue on professional nurses. We have helped nurses overcome compassion fatigue by strengthening their interpersonal and communication skills, by guiding nurses in the process of self-assessment so as to gain insight into stressors that contribute to their compassion fatigue, and to help them develop their own recovery plans.

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