Compassion Fatigue: Process & Effects

Instructor: Justine Fritzel

Justine has been a Registered Nurse for 10 years and has a Bachelor's of Science in Nursing degree.

Compassion fatigue is a very real issue that can affect those that are caregivers for others. In this lesson, we will learn about how compassion fatigue occurs and what the effects of it are.

Nursing and Caring

Carry is a nurse working in the emergency department. She has worked there since she got her nursing degree 10 years ago. She loves the fast-paced work flow and the satisfaction that comes from helping people who have just experienced the most traumatic event of their life. She works hard to meet her patients' physical needs while providing emotional support to them and their family. She is known to be successful at this, making people even in the most compromising situations feel more comfortable and at ease.

Her coworkers describe her as a hard worker who is always willing to help whenever needed. She stays late and picks up extra shifts to make sure the patients are cared for. She has received recognition and awards from the hospital for all that she does.

However, over the past year, coworkers started noticing a change in Carry. She started becoming more negative about situations at the hospital. She was frequently ill and calling off of work. When she was at work, she seemed distracted and aloof to patients and families, and the department was getting complaints about her performance. Her manager was becoming very concerned for her.

Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue occurs as a secondary traumatic stress disorder, and is common in nurses and those who work in other caregiving roles. Nurses are known for their passion of wanting to help and care for others. They are advocates for their patients and must have empathy for the situations these patients are going through. In fact, nurses are consistently rated as the most trusted profession, which speaks volumes of the relationships they develop with their patients.

However, nurses often have to deal with numerous heart-wrenching situations in a single shift. The core of nursing is an empathetic relationship between the nurse and their patients. So even though the nurse doesn't experience the traumatic events directly, they do experience the traumatic event emotionally by caring for the patient. Because of this, nurses often devote themselves to caring for others to the extent that they are not caring for themselves. This lack of self-care, along with the chronic stress that comes with working in such a busy job, leads to compassion fatigue.

Think of it as a glass of water. When the glass is empty, there is nothing more to give. Your thirst can't be quenched. Similarly, compassion fatigue is a holistic depletion, meaning a person is physically, emotionally, and spiritually depleted, while still trying to provide care to patients in emotional and physical distress. If the caregiver is depleted, how can they give adequately to the patient?

Effects of Compassion Fatigue

The symptoms we saw with Carry are common in compassion fatigue. A person may exhibit frequent illnesses and be mentally and physically tired. They may seem preoccupied and have difficulty concentrating. They may seem sad, not enjoying things that they once did.

Those experiencing compassion fatigue also often have issues with substance abuse or compulsive behaviors such as gambling or overspending, unhealthy methods of coping with the extreme stress. They also may appear bitter and complaining, lashing out or blaming others for trivial matters. Their work performance often suffers, resulting in complaints from patients or coworkers.

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