Minimizing Compassion Fatigue
Having been a nurse for over 20 years, I have experienced burnout or compassion fatigue several times during this journey. Wikipedia describes the follow symptoms of compassion fatigue: “Sufferers can exhibit several symptoms including hopelessness, a decrease in experiences of pleasure, constant stress and anxiety, and a pervasive negative attitude. This can have detrimental effects on individuals, both professionally and personally, including a decrease in productivity, the inability to focus, and the development of new feelings of incompetency and self doubt.”
You don’t have to be a nurse to experience compassion fatigue. I believe this can apply to not only nurses, but to moms, and caregivers of elderly parents, or people caring for friends, spouses, children, and other family members with chronic or terminal illness. The first thing to do is to recognize yourself as having burnout or compassion fatigue. Acknowledging your feelings is key to starting a healing process for yourself. You have to realize there is nothing wrong with having feelings of burnout. It’s not healthy to remain in this state, however.
I remember two times I will share during my time as a nurse that were particularly stressful to me. The first story was many years ago after working for 3 1/2 years in a high level intensive care unit and home health. Intensive care nursing is a very high-level stress area. I was doing well holding my own there. The stress was mounting, but I remember the straw that broke the camel’s back. The unit had been particularly busy, and I had a patient who appeared to be on the mend. A nurse co-worker had a patient come directly to her from a very high level surgery and she needed help getting the patient settled.
This was an open unit, so I could see my patients from the room I was helping in. During the brief time I was helping this nurse, one of my patient’s took off his oxygen and his oxygen level’s quickly dropped. He started pulling out lines and about that time the family came back to the unit for a visit. The family asked the nurse what was going on with their family member. She told them it wasn’t her patient. When I heard the monitor buzzing, and went over to help my patient, I remained calm, but saw the blood, and tried to get the situation under control. The situation escalated, and it took some time to get this patient under control. The patient had a cardiac event during this time. The patient lived, and no long term effects developed, but I blamed myself.
During this time, I was transitioning to work in home health. After working two years in home health, and carrying a beeper that went off constantly, I didn’t realize the signs of burnout were creeping up on me. Some of the home health time and ICU time overlapped. My husband was transferred to another city, and I didn’t work for two years as a nurse. I stayed home with the children and was able to enjoy them. I didn’t realize how affected I was by the build up of stress, but I started to notice it when I broke out in a cold sweat when I would hear a beeper go off, or the same effects when a medical show would come on. I couldn’t watch any medical shows for two years without feeling anxiety. The time away from nursing was what I needed to heal. By the time I went back to the hospital two years later, I wasn’t experiencing those anxiety feelings any longer.
The other time of being overwhelmed with compassion fatigue was after working eight years in a cancer clinic. I loved this position, and I never saw myself working anywhere else. This was an outpatient center, and my work with cancer patients was and still is very special to my heart. I read statistics that most oncology nurses only last two to three years due to the compassion fatigue. I am in year number 12 now. The last year I worked in that particular clinic, I think outside forces were more responsible for my burnout than the actual clinic.