Posted September 05, 2018

COACHING MINUTE: Minimize the Effects of Compassion Fatigue

By Nancy Arata, RN, BSN, MBA

“I just can’t do one more thing!”

“I am so overwhelmed!”

“I’m exhausted!”

“I am emotionally drained.”

We have all been there. Regardless of where you serve in healthcare, you have likely said these words yourself or, at the very least, heard them from a co-worker. Many of us go into healthcare because we want to make a difference. We want to help others and see purpose in our work. We are empathetic to the suffering of our patients and families. However, once we get out there in the trenches, reality sets in.

I will never forget hearing “Code Pink” announced overhead and having to quickly respond to my first pediatric code. Through emotions and tears, I did everything I could do to save the life of a five-year-old child while her parents were close by, observing this traumatic event. We were not successful. The sadness I observed from not only the family, but also the physicians, nurses and respiratory staff was devastating. As I write this, replaying this code in my mind brings back feelings of sadness, anger and failure. I remember feeling defeated. After that event, I became less empathetic with my other patients, thinking to myself, “at least you didn’t just watch your five-year-old die suddenly.” I felt emotionally drained, and I honestly wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to care like I had before I lost my pediatric patient.

Merriam Webster defines “compassion fatigue” as the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time.

Healthcare is a fast-paced, ever-changing profession. There is always a new product, process or policy that we must master. Couple that with the complexity and challenges of everyday patient care, and it is easy to see how compassion fatigue can set in. It’s hard to be empathetic all the time -- especially after you have been in healthcare for years, dealing with death, disease and tragedy on a daily basis. But when we fall victim to compassion fatigue, we are doing a disservice to our patients. Feeling burned out can negatively impact your ability to provide exceptional patient care.

Understanding how to minimize its impact on you, fellow colleagues, patients and families is an important first step toward healing. I offer the following tips to get you started.

Front Line Staff

  • Manage-up your coworkers. Never underestimate how valuable your recognition of a coworker can be to their emotional health.
  • Help your coworkers when you can. We must work as a team to be successful.
  • Build relationships. Let your peers know they can come to you if they are feeling burned out.

Unit/Department Leaders

  • If there is a particularly traumatic event, debrief with all staff involved within 24 hours.  Allow team members to share their experience and identify specific ways you can support them. 
  • Dedicate time to self-care and emotional health check-ins with staff. It is important for caregivers to take time for self-care. Leaders can do this one-on-one during routinely scheduled meetings or as a monthly group session where staff can share how they are doing. This gives caregivers an opportunity to share their stories, describe how they are processing traumatic events and ask for help, if needed.

Executive Leaders

  • Offer resilience training to all team members – including other executives. Regardless of your role, in healthcare we frequently experience tough situations. Being equipped to bounce back will make caregivers and the entire organization stronger.

Working in healthcare can be hard, and compassion fatigue is a serious side effect of that work. I want to thank you for making a difference in the lives of your patients, families and colleagues.

Nancy Arata has over 20 years of healthcare experience including bedside nursing in the intensive care unit, hospital quality, nursing research and as a Magnet project director. She is a results-driven leader who works with a variety of organizations from critical access and community hospitals to large academic medical centers.


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