How Nurses Can Prevent Compassion Fatigue

Nursing is a fulfilling profession for many, but it carries certain risks, such as compassion fatigue.

Without intervention, compassion fatigue can lead to burnout. Nurses must learn to identify potential symptoms and develop the skills necessary to alleviate this condition.

What Is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is a condition defined by a combination of profound physical, emotional or spiritual stress (or depletion) that can result from caring for considerably distressed patients. Anyone who is unable to adapt to stressors like physical, emotional or spiritual distress in patients with a variety of conditions is likely to face compassion fatigue.

What Are the Signs of Compassion Fatigue?

Nurses with compassion fatigue can exhibit physical, emotional and work-related symptoms. Sleep disturbances are one of the first physical signs. Feelings of unhappiness, mood swings and signs of anxiety or depression are common manifestations.

Consequences Symptoms
Physical ·        Problems sleeping, eating or concentrating

·        Headache, nausea, upset stomach

·        Fatigue, muscle tension

Emotional ·        Anxiety, depression

·        Mood swings, anger, outbursts, irritation

·        Unusually emotional about a patient’s condition

Work-Related ·        Detachment from co-workers

·        Tendency to blame others

·        Reduced compassion for patients

·        Dread of working in specific roles

What Can Nurses Do to Prevent Compassion Fatigue?

There are many ways to promote healthy caregiving and build resilience against compassion fatigue. Below are three key ways you can prevent this condition.

  1. Professional Boundaries

Learning to set appropriate boundaries can help nurses balance their personal and professional involvement. There is a fine line between compassion and overinvolvement. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing defines professional boundaries as “the limits that protect the space between the professional’s power and the patient’s vulnerability.”

Crossing professional boundaries can hurt the therapeutic nurse-patient relationship and harm your well-being. Legal issues, burnout, high staff turnover, moral distress, compassion fatigue and even adverse mental health outcomes can result if professional boundaries aren’t maintained.

  1. Self-care

To take care of others, you must first take care of yourself. During pre-flight safety instructions, you are told to “put your oxygen mask on first before helping others.” If you are incapacitated, you cannot help anyone else. The same is true in caregiving. You cannot keep giving to others if you do not give to yourself first.

In nursing, self-care is often neglected. Perhaps it is because nurses feel it is selfish, or they are physically and emotionally exhausted. Self-care is not an indulgence, but rather a daily discipline, like brushing your teeth.

Self-care does not have to be a long, elaborate process. Instead, try to incorporate five minutes of self-care strategies into your daily schedule. Restore balance by reading, coloring, walking outdoors, journaling or practicing mindfulness exercises. Check to see if your workplace teaches self-care for nurses or offers an employee assistance program.

  1. Work/Life Balance

Balance your schedule. Many nurses feel guilty if their unit is short-staffed, so they sign up for overtime. Being overworked or tired can lead to poorer patient outcomes, increased stress, burnout and other health issues like compassion fatigue. Permit yourself to say “no.” If you struggle with work/life balance and can’t “switch off,” consider reaching out to a mentor or therapist who might be able to provide guidance.

Understanding and recognizing signs of compassion fatigue can help you manage it and better help others. Take a personal inventory of tools you can use to build resilience. If you find yourself consistently struggling to maintain boundaries, consider professional counseling. Accept that part of taking care of your patients is taking care of yourself. Resurrect old self-care strategies or explore new ones. Aim for a healthy work/life balance and identify workplace support. Compassion fatigue does not have to become the “cost of caring.”

Learn more about Southern Utah University’s online RN to BSN program.


AMN Healthcare: Compassion Fatigue: Tips for Coping

APA PsycNet: Compassion Fatigue. Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder in Those Who Treat the Traumatized

Cancer Network: Using the THRIVE Program to Teach Self-Care to Oncology Nurses

Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project: The Ten Laws Governing Healthy Caregiving

Good Therapy: The Cost of Caring: 10 Ways to Prevent Compassion Fatigue

National Council of State Boards of Nursing: A Nurse’s Guide to Professional Boundaries

National Library of Medicine: Preventing and Alleviating Compassion Fatigue Through Self-Care: An Educational Workshop for Nurses

Oncology Nursing Society: Practice These Five Self-Care Strategies in Less Than Five Minutes

Psychology Today: Mindfulness Practice in 5 Minutes or Less

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