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The Insidious Link between Compassion Fatigue and Burnout

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

In 1993 I committed my life to the profession of healthcare. As a Registered Nurse, I have spent more than 30 years in the care of patients and their families faced with incurable life-long diseases. Providing the actual medical treatment is only a small portion of my role as a nurse; providing comfort, support, compassion, truth, and dignity was, is, and forever will be the foundation of being a nurse and what makes nursing the #1 trusted profession for more than 20 years. It is, however, the aspect of nursing care that takes the greatest emotional, physical, and mental toll on our healthcare professionals.

The resilience by which nurses navigate their careers in healthcare is that of unwavering commitment and compassion. Driven by core values that include loyalty, dependability, sensitivity, honesty, and relationship, the nurse will prioritize the needs of others, oftentimes at the sacrifice of their own well-being. Having high levels of empathy, a nurse deeply feels their patient's distress, sadness, and suffering as if it is their own. The weight of this can ultimately manifest as emotional exhaustion, intrusive thoughts and/or nightmares, and physical symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, or other health disorders; commonly referred to as "Compassion Fatigue". At this point, a nurse may experience a decline in their ability to demonstrate empathy which will ultimately impact their ability to provide quality patient care.

Demanding work environments have long-term effects similar to that of compassion fatigue. "Burnout" is the result of prolonged stress and being overworked. The effects include emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion which manifests as detachment, cynicism, feelings of helplessness, and loss of motivation. Employees at the stage of burnout often find their job performance declines as they disengage from their roles and those around them. Burnout, similar to compassion fatigue, can cause health problems as a result of stress and sacrifice of personal needs such as sleep, nutrition, and exercise. As detachment and cynicism are realized, it, unfortunately, can spill over into their personal life, placing strain on relationships and lowering a sense of overall job satisfaction.

As caregivers experience compassion fatigue, the risk of burnout is enhanced. Continued overwhelming demands to meet another person's needs while circumventing their own risks declining resilience, emotional depletion, and ultimately burnout. Protecting our healthcare providers from this is not just an act of compassion; it is a strategic imperative for maintaining the quality and sustainability of our healthcare systems. As employers, we have a responsibility to ensure our healthcare providers are able to provide exceptional care to patients. We can do this primarily through measures that uphold the integrity of our care provider's well-being such as prevention and management programs, setting boundaries, providing support services, and conducting regular assessments to mitigate compassion fatigue and burnout.

In conclusion, the link between compassion fatigue and burnout is undeniable, especially for those in the caregiving profession. It is imperative that caregivers and their organizations take measures to prevent and address both compassion fatigue and burnout through meaningful measures as defined by the employee. Prevention of compassion fatigue and burnout are critical strategies for not only influencing employee satisfaction but also as a measure of providing continued care to the patient and the sustainability of our healthcare system.

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