Compassion Fatigue & How to Overcome It

In Career Advice
March 3, 2016

Compassion Fatigue - Compassion Fatigue & How to Overcome It

Compassion fatigue is a real problem in the healthcare industry. Professionals, particularly nurses, must fulfill a myriad of duties in addition to working extensively long hours. With the influx of new patients, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, many are overworked and become apathetic with time.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

According to the CFAP, it can be described as “a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.” In other words, individuals can care so much about who or what they’re trying to help that it becomes dangerous for themselves.

Caring too much can cause people to completely disregard their own well-being in order to focus more of their attention on the patient, bringing out self-destructive behaviors like failing to eat properly, prioritize sleep, or maintain good hygiene. While we’re all taught a young age that we should care about the needs of others, some have taken the lesson too literally.

Despite being in the medical industry, these individuals aren’t living very healthy lives due to the emotional toll their position takes on their private lives. They don’t eat regularly–and when they do, it’s mostly fast food–and they never seem to sleep the recommended 8 hours.

To add to the pressure, many healthcare professionals who experience compassion fatigue have little autonomy or authority. They’re usually can’t make tough calls and are dependent on supervisors and physicians to tell them what to do.

They can’t work effectively because they have to tip-toe around every corner– they have to get proper permission before they do certain tasks, even though those tasks are well within their boundaries of experience. It stops them from doing simple tasks. Instead of critical thinking and deciding what’s best for the individual patient, the their workload generally depends on inflexible protocols and avoiding institutional penalties.

Common Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue

As with any other disorder, we must first identify the symptoms of compassion fatigue before we’re able to take the necessary steps to remedy it. These can include:

  • Emotional Coldness
  • Excessively complaining
  • Isolating themselves
  • Receives an unusually high number of complaints
  • Overspending, overeating, gambling, & other addictions
  • Poor or non-existent personal hygiene
  • Sudden legal or debt issues
  • Flashbacks of traumatic events
  • An inability to concentrate
  • Chronic and sudden physical ailments
  • Constantly mentally and/or physically tired
  • Apathetic, sad, and/or uninterested
  • Constant preoccupation
  • Substance abuse
  • Denial

6 Tips to Overcoming Compassion Fatigue:

1. Talk to Those You Trust

The first thing you should do if you feel you’re a candidates for compassion fatigue is to talk to someone who can help. Go to a trusted family member, friend, supervisor, or coworker and detail your troubles to let them know certain things aren’t working. If possible, build a support system both at home and on the job. Things like better small breaks, rotating schedules or mandatory meditation time can go a long way when managing compassion fatigue.

However, sometimes supervisors don’t care, or simply can’t do anything for you, and that’s okay. Sometimes just talking to a superior about your difficulties can help by putting everything on the table and letting them know that anything they can do for you will really help. A lot of the time, supervisors love to see their employees happy, so they will do anything they can to help out.

2. Get Enough Regular Exercise

Exercise is a proven stress-reliever. If you do find some time, take a break and get a walk in. Let your co-workers know that you are stepping out for a few minutes so they can cover any emergencies. Sometimes just getting outside can help relieve some of the immediate stress you feel. Although it’s not possible in every situation, but sometimes you can find a little time for yourself to step away for a bit and regain your sanity. If you can’t make it outside, just walk around your place of employment. Those things are huge, so there shouldn’t be a lack of space to walk around.

Walking makes you happier, gives you more energy, and burns calories. Everyone knows that when we exercise we feel better, so, instead of looking at your phone or watching T.V. and eating junk food on your breaks, get up and take a walk. Walking is one of the best things you can do for yourself if you are fatigued and stressed. Although time may not be your most abundant resource, you’ll have to make the time, for your own sake.

3. Get Organized

Much of the time, healthcare professionals lead a very reactive, v.s. proactive, lifestyle. This means simply that they react to situations or problems as they happen, rather than planning ahead, causing unnecessary stress. Sometimes this is unavoidable because, well, we can’t plan for everything. However, its important for your own personal well-being when dealing with compassion fatigue to organize as much of your life as much as possible.

Easy steps you can take to become more organized include automating the payment of your bills, keeping a detailed schedule or calendar, avoiding procrastination, make deadlines and be sure you’re meeting them, regularly cleaning your workplace and home, and writing about anything noteworthy.

4. Practice Healthy Eating Habits

One of the most important factors regarding mental and physical health is your diet. In the healthcare industry, its no wonder so many professionals exhibit poor habits, particularly when compassion fatigue is involved. Most experiencing the problem stick with fast food or quick frozen dinners to cope with the stress and exhaustion of long care-taking shifts. However, this is something we all MUST make the time for if we want to lead a healthier lifestyle.

One starting mistake people tend to make is trying to replace the less-than-healthy foods they enjoy with healthier alternatives. However, this is a recipe for failure. Start by reducing the portions of the junk foods you love, and adding new, healthier foods to your diet. On the job, yogurt is a great source of energy as it metabolizes quicker than solid foods and is light. Other steps you can take include prepping your meals for the week on your day off, focusing your grocery shopping more on fruits and vegetables, and choosing healthier snacks that are high in protein, like nuts.

5. Drink Lots of Water

Water helps flush your body and revitalizes us. If you drink cold water, it can give you a rush that shoots energy throughout your mind and body. Cold water restores alertness and, if you splash it on you, releases noradrenaline which is a hormone that energizes us.

But drinking it has lots of benefits. Consuming water, instead of sugary drinks, helps reduce headaches, keeps us clearer, helps with bad digestive problems (like I was talking about above) and helps us shed pounds. Since our bodies are made up mostly of water, we need plenty of it to survive and thrive.

Drinking water can help with joint aches and can release tight muscles that cause headaches and body pain. Most of the time we don’t even realize we are dehydrated or thirsty. It’s best to drink about 8 glasses a day, but if you’re active, you should probably drink about 12. You will feel better, lose weight, and release tension.

6. Practice Overall Healthy Self-Management

Mental and physical health start from within. Nobody can help you if you don’t genuinely want to help yourself. So, if you’re suffering from compassion fatigue, then you probably have a hard time saying “no” to others, but you have to. Whatever the case may be, whether your schedule is jam-packed or the task is simply too much of a burden on you, prioritizing tasks and managing your life in a more balanced fashion can go a long way to a healthier you.

Practice the aforementioned tips in unison with one another to lead a more balanced life. Take time to understand the emotional stress that comes with compassion fatigue, prioritize what you do for others v.s. what you need to do for yourself, communicate regularly with a supportive network, and work to identify subconscious behaviors that are manifesting from your anxieties. Most importantly, don’t give up. We all slip, that’s part of it. The only real defeat is failing to try again.

Helping our healthcare professionals feel more appreciated, less overworked, and more autonomous can help greatly in coping with compassion fatigue, and lead to better patient outcomes. For those current suffering from it, keeping a positive outlook and building healthier life-habits can go far.

Advance your career. Change your life. - HospitalCareers