Compassion fatigue is serious danger for nurses and caregivers. Ironically, the better they are, the more suddenly it can strike, the way it did with Florence.
She sat in her car, staring blankly at the windshield. She couldn’t remember if he had she eaten lunch, or breakfast for that matter. Her caseload had kept her so preoccupied, she had hardly noticed her bladder was full. There were so many calls to make, but she could barely keep her eyes open. Exhaustion was creeping in. However, duty called. Reaching into her bag, she slapped on her surgical mask.
“Only four more hours to go,” she told herself.
Florence prided herself on her abilities as a nurse. She was attentive, composed, self-reliant, and devoted to her patients. Not once had she neglected them. But she had gotten so caught up in work, she had neglected the person they relied on – herself.
The Dangers of Compassion Fatigue
The COVID pandemic has shown us the value of nurses and caregivers. While the rest of the world stayed home to social distance, Florence and her colleagues were at the forefront. Like so many nurses, doctors, social workers, and ambulance drivers, Florence put her health on the line in order to serve her community.
However, caring for others can take a serious toll on mental health. Eventually, when even her cat did not want to be around her, Florence realized she had a problem. She was becoming the grouchy nurse no one liked. Her long hours and heavy workload had worn her down. Thinking back over the last few days, she saw she had begun to exhibit symptoms of compassion fatigue:
- Chronic Physical & Emotional Exhaustion
- Feelings of Inequity
- Difficulty Sleeping
- Weight Loss
- Poor Job Satisfaction
Compassion fatigue is different from burn out. Burnout happens gradually, as a result of prolonged stress. Conversely, compassion fatigue can occur abruptly. Caregiver simply become overhwhelmed. If left untreated, it often leads to increased absenteeism and inadequate care. However, unlike burnout, compassion fatigue is predictable and easy to cure if it is caught early.
(Credit due to Jamanetwork for the original article on compassion fatigue: Understanding and Addressing Sources of Anxiety Among Health Care Professionals During the COVID-19 Pandemic.)
Leadership Steps In
Luckily for Florence, the executives at Parentis Health recognize the danger of compassion fatigue. They work closely with staff to support anyone showing signs of exhaustion. When they saw Florence was becoming worn out, they took steps to help her.
Our executives encourage employees to ask for help when they need it. With his in mind, Florence felt confident when she approached her supervisor and asked to lighten her load. Less important and less time-sensitive jobs were deferred or reassigned. Over the next few weeks, her Clinical Director continued checking in, so Florence did not have to make difficult decisions alone. She had someone to support her and collaborate with.
Dealing with Compassion Fatigue
There are five steps organizations can take to prevent and treat compassion fatigue.
Listen to frontline nurses and care providers. Solicit their perspective and then act on their concerns.
Healthcare workers are often uncertain whether leaders recognize the challenges they face. Moreover, they do not always know whether expert advice on infection control, critical care, and mental health is being implemented.
Leaders need to communicate with their staff. They can set up listening groups, an email suggestion box, town halls, or visit hospital units. Additionally, they should post the latest healthcare information and make sure it is being followed. Include staff in decision-making wherever possible.
Reduce the risk that healthcare workers might become infected.
In times of heightened concern, workers need protective equipment and access to rapid testing. That way, they can prevent infecting family members.
Disinfect hospitals and care facilities regularly. Distribute information on the disease to every worker. Finally, medical directors should accommodate staff who are at high risk because of age or health conditions.
Provide training and support so staff can deliver high-quality care to patients.
Nurses need to know they will be able to offer high-quality care if they are deployed to a new area. Leaders need to keep them up to date on the situation they will be facing.
Directors should offer training, so everyone has critical knowledge about the disease. If you can, invite experts to talk to your staff. Everyone is experiencing new challenges, so organizations need to make it clear people can ask for help. Caregivers need to know they don’t have to make difficult decisions alone. Everyone is in it together.
Support nurses working extreme work hours, especially if they are dealing with uncertainty and intense exposure to critically ill patients. Remember, they will be taking on extra stress as demands increase and schools and daycares close.
Look after their physical needs. For example, make sure they they access to healthy meals and clean water when they are working. Equally important, secure lodging for individuals on rapid-cycle shifts who do not live close to the hospital. Sleep-deprived workers may need transportation as well, and assistance with other tasks, such as childcare.
Do not forget their emotional and psychological needs either. Deploy psychological first aid in person or via webinars. Topics may include coping with anxiety, insomnia, self-care, and moral distress. Provide individual support if someone is particularly stressed.
Look after workers if they or their family are quarantined. Provide housing for people living apart from their families. See their tangible needs are met (e.g. food, childcare). Check-in often as well. Offer paid time off to workers under quarantine.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
For more tips on mental fitness, visit Parentis Health & Wellness.