Compassion Fatigue & Nursing

Story---Bed-Rest-Healthcare--04-2017-484x252-JPG.jpgIn last week’s post, I highlighted just a few ways to be a more compassionate nurse. What happens, however, when caring for the sick and dying or repeatedly witnessing trauma leads to compassion fatigue? Compassion fatigue, first described over twenty years ago in text by a nurse (Joinson, 1992) can be defined as the “loss of the ability to nurture.” It is considered a “cost of caring.” While the symptoms are similar to those of burnout, the cause and onset are different. Burn out is a result of job related dissatisfaction while compassion fatigue is more directly patient related. Burn out occurs gradually over time while compassion fatigue can be more acute in its onset. Could you be experiencing compassion fatigue?

Signs & Symptoms

  • Exhaustion
  • Insomnia
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Apathy
  • Feeling of overwhelm
  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Decreased Job Satisfaction
  • Pointing Blame

The Affected

Compassion fatigue can affect any professional caregiver. Healthcare workers are at risk as well as police, social workers and therapists. Nurses, especially acute care, are at high risk. Any nurse working in close proximity to patients that are suffering are at risk.

Prevention & Intervention

It is essential for the at risk population to balance work life with personal life. The innate caregiver often spends more time caring for others than self which can quickly lead to an imbalance. Self care is essential. A healthy diet, exercise, and regular non work related activities can help maintain a balance. In addition, it is important to attend debriefing sessions following a traumatic event in the workplace. On job education with regard to the risks and prevention of compassion fatigue should be discussed. Also, education in coping with grief and trauma should be implemented in high risk areas.

Nurses often play the role of both first and continued responder in the workplace which puts the individual at high risk for compassion fatigue. It is important to be aware of the risks, signs, and interventions to ensure a healthy balance in the workplace. Even Mother Theresa recognized the effect of compassion fatigue when she urged all her nurses to take a full year off every four to five years in order to rest and recover from their care giving duties.

Lori is an American nurse and yogini living in Gothenburg, Sweden. She contributes regularly for Mighty Nurse, AWHONN, American Nurse Today, and has been featured in The Huffington Post. Follow her adventures through Neonurse or on Instagram.


  1. The American Institute of Stress
  2. Countering Compassion Fatigue: A Requisite Nursing Agenda

Coping With Compassion Fatigue

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