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How Can Medical Professionals Avoid Compassion Fatigue?

Female Nurse crying in the corner

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As physician shortages intensify in the U.S. and around the world, patients in need aren’t the only ones feeling a squeeze. Physicians, nurses and other health care professionals are seeing caseloads rise and resources stretched thin. All of this can combine to make burnout more common among health care providers, and it also increases the likelihood of another affliction: compassion fatigue.

“What is compassion fatigue in healthcare?

Compassion fatigue is a misunderstood problem. Too often, it is confused with burnout, which can misinterpret the causes of the issue and muddle the conversation about how to get out from under it. Let’s set the record straight before going any further: Compassion fatigue is best described as the cost of caring. It is the mental and emotional distress that can follow when healthcare professionals connect and empathize with patients. Burnout, on the other hand, deals squarely with work environment and the factors that tie into it, such as job satisfaction and interactions with co-workers.

Though experience with compassion fatigue is not limited to health care workers who have been affected by physician shortages, it can be a particular threat to those in the caring profession who are pushed to their limits. In such settings, demanding that health care leaders and organizations do more to educate their staffs on the importance of noticing and treating compassion fatigue is not coddling or soft — it’s what is best for caregivers and patients alike.

“You’re not able to do what you need to do with the patient effectively — put the patient at the center of the equation — if you’re so tied up in your emotions or your lack of emotion …,” says Diane Andrews, director of the Nursing Leadership and Management MSN and Executive Track Nursing Practice Ph.D. programs in the University of Central Florida’s College of Nursing. “If we don’t care for each other, how do we care for the patients well?” 

The good news is that there are proven interventions to help address and prevent compassion fatigue — so that neither care providers nor patients must suffer its worst effects. In recent years, a growing body of research has studied the effectiveness of various treatment methods. Below are five techniques that all health care providers and organizations should consider.

“What is compassion fatigue in healthcare?

1) Lessons in resilience

A review of several studies on compassion fatigue revealed that the most effective interventions are programs or seminars that teach or bolster resilience in health care workers. Researchers point to one such model, which included five sessions designed to help care providers identify symptoms of compassion fatigue, recognize the triggers, make an inventory of available resources, learn calming practices for in-the-moment stress, and master conflict resolution. This model, in particular, draws from literature on how to treat post-traumatic stress disorder by building self-awareness.

Resilience is indeed a trait that can be developed and strengthened like a muscle — and doing so may be one of the best ways for health care providers to stay effective in the face of mental and emotional stress.

2) Mindfulness training

The same research review showed that structured meditation following along to an audio program is another effective measure in calming the worst effects of compassion fatigue. This solitary activity comes with the benefit of flexibility, as health care workers can research on their own a few of the myriad meditation apps and programs and fit the practice into their schedules as they prefer.

Meditation is just one form of the larger field of mindfulness training, which helps people learn to bring their attention to whatever is happening in the present moment — whether they’re sitting with their eyes closed, listening closely to a patient, or walking from one room to another and checking in with their own emotions.

3) Exercise

Exercise deserves its own mention because of the regularity with which it appears in literature about combating compassion fatigue. It’s the prime example of the type of regular physical practice that can prove immensely helpful in keeping compassion fatigue and its attendant stress under control. Like meditation, there are many different ways to align an exercise routine with your life, interests and schedule — and it’s worth figuring out how to do that if you’re in a mentally and emotionally demanding professional field, such as health care.

4) Counseling

Even if the health care institution that employs you doesn’t offer resilience-building workshops, there are ways to reach out and ask for help in addition to undertaking personal practices, such as exercising and meditating. Because compassion fatigue has become an increasingly common term in research literature, health care professionals of many types have learned about the concept, its causes and its interventions.

Consider contacting counselors to ask if they offer specialized treatment of compassion fatigue. No matter how compassion fatigue manifests in your life, don’t hesitate to reach out and get help.

5) Accepting that your compassion fatigue symptoms — and interventions — may be unique

Constantly wondering why your compassion fatigue seems worse than that of your colleagues, why a given treatment isn’t working, or whether you’re just doing it all wrong can prove counterproductive in dealing with the affliction. If people around you seem to be avoiding their own compassion fatigue, that doesn’t mean you should try to ignore yours, too. Experiment with the replenishing activities that help you most, and stick with the ones that make a difference.

Remember that fighting compassion fatigue head-on could prove to be beneficial to both you and your patients. It’s not selfish or weak but rather a means to continue doing the crucial work you’ve been trained to excel in. Learning more about compassion fatigue and what you can do about it really is the compassionate thing to do.