I recently read an article about a St. Louis Hospital that has initiated efforts to help staff deal with “compassion fatigue”. The term “compassion fatigue” was new to me and the article focused on the occupational hazard relative to nursing careers.
Compassion fatigue is caused by two main factors, witnessing the suffering of others and burnout. It can lead nurses to feel sadness and despair to the point that it affects their health and well-being. Nurses, and other health care providers, care for sick people and when caring for sick people there are bound to be tense moments. Health care workers are by their very nature compassionate people, why else would they choose their occupation. It’s easy to understand how caring for sick people, some of whom do not get better, some of whom who are suffering and some of whom who are dying can take its toll on a person. The day-to-day grind is bound to take an emotional toll on even the most upbeat and positive individual.
It has been found that compassion fatigue can reduce a nuses’ empathy and lead them to dread or to avoid certain patients which raises the risk for substandard care. Nurses who avoid certain patients, or minimize time with certain patients, may cause them to be less observant and may discourage patients from asking important questions and can cause errors. Compassion fatigue can also lead to health problems in the caregiver and common ailments include depression, poor concentration, anxiety, fatigue, headache and upset stomach.
I get it, I was a clinician before I was an administrator. I’m a Physical Therapist and patient care is what brought me to the health field. I can remember how difficult it was trying to find the extra energy to spend time with a patient that was difficult to deal with or one that was dying.
Caregivers give of themselves every day and they learn how to detach themselves from situations. I’m guessing there’s a point in every caregivers career that they sit down with their head in their hands and say “I’m not sure I can do this anymore”.
The trick is realizing when you’ve hit that wall. When, and if, you do experience compassion fatigue, take some time to care for yourself. The article points out the importance of recognizing, managing and relieving stress as the key to avoiding compassion fatigue. Don’t internalize things, talk to co-workers and fellow caregivers, ask how they cope. Develop a support system, explore stress relieving exercises and find ways to restore your energy.
Our patients deserve your best. There’s always a chance that yours may be the last smile they ever see!