Paradoxically, one of the characteristics of a stellar nurse can at times prove detrimental. Society has long viewed the nursing profession as synonymous with compassion and empathy, and due to the nature of the work, nurses may become extremely invested in the health and welfare of their patients. However, when nurses begin to “take on the emotions and suffering of their patients as their own,” 1 normal feelings of compassion and empathy begin to develop into compassion fatigue.
“Compassion fatigue ‘has been defined as a combination of physical, emotional, and spiritual depletion associated with caring for patients in significant emotional pain and physical distress.’’’ 1 When under ongoing stress from caring for severely ill patients, nurses may reach a point where they become burned out and unable to care for themselves or others, affecting their overall wellbeing.
"Do deep breathing, guided imagery, and just take a moment to yourself."
Jenna Bauer, DNP, Associate Professor of Nursing at Saint Mary’s College
Understandably, compassion fatigue is especially prevalent among nurses in the oncology unit. Along with working in an emotionally charged environment, “the intense and ongoing losses experienced in oncology care make oncology nurses very vulnerable to burnout. It can be especially difficult for nurses to deal with the loss of a patient that they have known and taken care of for a long time.” 1 Additionally, nurses working in the emergency department are prone to burnout, since they “see on average about 50 patients per shift compared to about four patients on a normal medical-surgical floor, which can be both physically and psychologically exhausting.” 1
So what can nurses do to prevent compassion fatigue – or at least minimize its effects? According to Jenna Bauer, DNP, associate professor of nursing at Saint Mary’s College, employing deep breathing and guided imagery techniques can go a long way toward alleviating symptoms. Bauer led fourth semester BSN students through an eight-week guided imagery stress reduction program, and found a clinically significant increase in students’ confidence levels in their ability to handle stress after the program, as well as an increase in feelings of control over unexpected events.
Another strategy to combat the onset of compassion fatigue is to create a space for relaxation. “If it ever gets to the point where it’s just too much, and you are able to step out of the situation, find a nurse who can watch your patients for a few minutes, go to an empty room and destress,” Bauer said. “Do deep breathing, guided imagery, and just take a moment to yourself.”
It’s important for stress-reduction initiatives to originate from the top levels of an organization. According to “Seven Strategies to Reduce Nurse Burnout,” 2 stress reduction programs frequently fail “because bedside nurses do not receive support for such programs from leadership.” Management should initiate and support nurse mentoring and stress relief programs to foster social support, which can alleviate stress, as well as encourage nurses to attend stress reduction classes and keep up-to-date with training, as nurses who feel competent in their jobs are less anxious and likely have a greater sense of mastery. 2
1 “Preventing and Managing Compassion Fatigue and Burnout in Nursing,” by Heidi Braunschneider, College of DuPage
2 “Seven Strategies to Reduce Nurse Burnout,” by Rebecca Hendren, HealthLeaders Media