While the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the value of nurses and caregivers worldwide, it also illuminated the emotional and physical strain that comes with being a frontline healthcare worker. Caring for others can take a serious toll on mental health, even under normal circumstances. The extreme exhaustion and desperation that some caregivers experience is known as compassion fatigue.
Understanding the warning signs
Compassion fatigue carries serious health risks for nurses and caregivers. Long hours, double shifts, and constant stress drive caregivers to the brink of exhaustion, contributing to poor mental and physical health.
Compassion fatigue vs. burnout
Compassion fatigue is frequently confused with burnout. They may appear similar to some extent, but the former is more sudden, while the other is cumulative.
Burnout happens gradually, as a result of prolonged stress and dissatisfaction. Conversely, compassion fatigue stems from stressful work environments, limited resources, long hours and unmitigated exposure to trauma.
Unlike burnout, its onset can be immediate, triggered by patients in a person’s care. For these reasons, compassion fatigue is sometimes known as secondhand shock or vicarious trauma. Thankfully, compassion fatigue is predictable and easy to cure with early detection.
Common symptoms include:
Chronic physical and emotional exhaustion
Feelings of inequity
Poor job satisfaction
Addressing compassion fatigue
As compassion fatigue is a product of a highly stressful work environment, organizations—particularly those within the healthcare sphere—can take immediate steps to combat it when it sets in amongst staff members.
Healthcare workers, in particular, are often uncertain whether leaders recognize the challenges they face. Moreover, they do not always know whether leaders follow expert advice on infection control, critical care, and mental health.
That’s why it’s imperative that leadership solicit their employees’ perspectives and genuinely listen to their concerns. Listening to nurses and frontline healthcare workers is vital to addressing and overcoming compassion fatigue.
Likewise, leadership needs to communicate with their staff and include them in the decision-making process whenever possible. They can set up listening groups, an email suggestion box, town halls, or visit hospital units. Ideally, leadership posts the latest healthcare information in common areas and strictly enforces it.
In times of heightened concern, workers need protective equipment and access to rapid testing to safeguard their families against infection. To ensure safety, organizations must reduce potential risks wherever possible, disinfecting care facilities, hospitals, outpatient centers and everywhere else workers come into contact with patients. For example, leaders take extra care to accommodate staff who are at high risk due to age or health conditions.
Education is also a key component of protection. Information about disease prevention should be widely shared throughout an organization, especially CDC guidelines concerning infectious diseases.
Whether it’s at the onset of a pandemic or deployment to a new ward, healthcare workers need to know what they’re in for. Training, daily briefings and regular updates are essential; equally important is an awareness that healthcare workers aren’t alone.
To help staff feel less isolated, leadership can invite experts for open question and answer sessions, and encourage them to ask for help. Resources should be readily available, from national organizations to onsite counseling services.
Frontline healthcare workers, nurses, aides and others working long hours need physical and emotional support, especially if they are dealing with uncertainty and intense exposure to critically ill patients.
Healthcare organizations must ensure that the physical needs of staff are consistently met. Access to healthy meals and water during work hours and secure lodging for individuals on rapid-cycle shifts who don’t live nearby is vital to maintaining the stamina necessary to care for others. Sleep-deprived workers may need transportation as well, and assistance with other tasks, such as childcare.
The emotional and psychological wellbeing of workers are equally important. Leadership can deploy psychological first aid in person or via webinars. Topics may include coping with anxiety, insomnia, self-care, and moral distress. Individual support should also be provided to those who are particularly stressed.
For workers regularly exposed to communicable diseases like Covid-19, organizations should have contingency plans to support workers who fall ill and must undergo quarantine. Paid time off is absolutely essential, as well as regular check-ins; providing housing for workers living apart from families is equally important.