Nurses, despite having psychiatric and professional training, can find themselves suffering from compassion fatigue, reports the Wall Street Journal.
According to a primer published last year by the American Nurses Association, compassion fatigue is “a combination of physical, emotional, and spiritual depletion associated with caring for patients in significant emotional pain and physical distress.” The nurses’ group says several different types of interventions, including workshops, staff retreats and counseling have been shown to help. And such programs may only become more important as demands increase on a shrinking supply of nurses, who shoulder the heaviest burden of patient care.
Lucia Wocial, a nurse ethicist at Indiana University Health in Indianapolis, tells the Health Blog that for nurses, compassion fatigue is often compounded by moral distress — the feeling of being unable to help a suffering patient or do what they feel is the right thing, such as withdrawing life support from a patient who won’t recover when a doctor or family asks for additional interventions. Wocial says Indiana University Health offers resources for staffers, such as a one- or two-day retreat to help them reconnect with the fundamental reasons they went into health care. “We tell them how important it is to rejuvenate, because you can’t take care of people unless you are taking care of yourself.”
- The point being for us family members that have no professional support, or formal training, that even the people who undertake broadly based caring as a profession get burned out.
While researchers agree more study is needed into the connection between compassion fatigue and patient outcomes, a 2009 analysis conducted by the Regenstrief Institute and Indiana University School of Medicine found that compassion fatigue was linked to decreased productivity, more sick days and higher turnover among cancer care providers. In numerous studies of the blatantly obvious, nurse turnover and understaffing has been linked to worse patient outcomes and higher mortality rates.
Thomas Lowe, health and safety representative for the New York State Nurses Association, began conducting workshops on compassion fatigue last year that use relaxation and stress-reduction techniques from programs including the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project. Lowe says such programs could be incorporated into nursing-school curricula “to forewarn [nurses] this is something to expect.”
Compassion fatigue, he adds, can be compounded by an already stressful work environment, where nurses may be pulling extra shifts because of understaffing, and may face verbal abuse or bullying from colleagues.
At Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, which is offering a day-long compassion-fatigue program for staffers, Lawrence Marsco, a 25-year nursing veteran who manages the leukemia and lymphoma floor, says the effort has sent a message to nurses that the hospital’s leadership is aware of the issues they face and is willing to help: “In nursing, if you are giving your heart and soul to caring for patients, it is very difficult not to be affected by compassion fatigue,” he says. “This is a way to bring awareness of the issue so you don’t turn into a nurse who is perceived as cold and uncaring, when in fact you are probably the most caring and compassionate nurse of all.”