Are Doctors Suffering From Compassion Fatigue?

Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LMSW


December 23, 2013

In This Article

Awareness: The First Step to Fighting Back

Because the demands of caring for sick people can be exhausting, physicians often have a hard time identifying the unique exhaustion associated with compassion fatigue. Those who are affected typically describe themselves as "emotionally drained, depleted, and worn out," in ways that differ from ordinary work-related exhaustion. In compassion fatigue, the physician is "unable to recover during non-working hours," explains Dr. Drummond.

He should know. He experienced it himself several years ago. "I was the quintessential successful small-town doc," Dr. Drummond recalls. "But I was getting increasingly drained and, eventually, I hit a brick wall. I thought I simply needed a vacation and took a sabbatical. But when I returned, I felt even worse.

"Being away from patients didn't recharge me. I wish I had understood what was really going on."

Cynicism and Abusiveness are Red Flags

Cynicism or sarcastic remarks about a patient, even in his or her absence, are prime symptoms of compassion fatigue, Dr. Drummond points out. "If you hear yourself describing the overweight Mrs. Smith as 'a tub of lard' when you talk to your fellow physicians, it's a red flag."

Dr. Drummond notes that these types of comments are frequently dismissed as "healthy venting" and aren't recognized as warning signs. "You briefly feel good, but underneath something doesn't feel right when you degrade a patient you're supposed to care about."

Disruptive or abusive behavior toward fellow health professionals, such as physician colleagues, physician assistants, or nurses, is another red flag. This includes intimidation, harassment, disrespect, berating, and condescension, says Dr. Rosenstein.

"If you find yourself feeling that your patients, staff, and institution are deliberately trying to wear you out and drive you crazy, it's a sign of compassion fatigue," Dr. Drummond adds.


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