Most nurses enter the health profession to help others by providing physical, mental, and spiritual care. Being able to provide compassion care to patients and their families can be very rewarding and satisfying for the caregivers giving it. However, working in a stressful environment and encountering sick patients all the time can put them at risk for compassion fatigue. Nurses are particularly vulnerable to CF because they often enter the lives of their patients at very critical junctures and become intimate observers in their healthcare journey (Boyle, 2011).
Those suffering from CF may display symptoms similar to secondary traumatic stress such as loss of compassion satisfaction, lack of compassion and empathy to those in their care, anger towards coworkers, lack of sleep, depression, and low self-esteem (Potter, Deshields, Berger, Clarke & Chen, 2013; Houck, 2014; Wentzel & Brysiewicz, 2014, p. 181). In health care settings, this can have detrimental effects for nurses, healthcare organizations, and patients. Consequences experienced by health care workers include an increase in absenteeism, high staff turnover, decreased quality of patient care, and performance issues, which can decrease patient safety and satisfaction (Potter, Deshields, Berger, Clarke, Olsen, & Chen, 2013; Kelly & Todd, 2017, p. 185; Houck, 2014, p. 455; Van Mol, Kompanje, Benoit, Bakker, & Nijkamp, 2015, p. 3). Not only is the quality of care affected but the effectiveness of patient care over time. Younger and inexperienced nurses have a higher risk for compassion fatigue (Kelly & Todd, 2017, p. 356). As newer nurses are leaving their positions within the first year, this causes high turnover rates, creating many problems for healthcare as patient safety is compromised from “disruptions in workflow, continuity of patient care, and the expense of continually replacing a skilled workforce” (Kelly & Todd, 2017 p. 352).
It is important to have a healthy work environment in having good nurses and high-quality patient outcomes. The concept of CF is not formally defined within nursing practice so there is needs to be better way to identify and combat CF effectively. “The true magnitude of the emotional distress in health care professionals remains unclear due to a lack of unity in measurements” (Van Mol, Kompanje, Benoit, Bakker, & Nijkamp, 2015, p. 17). As more nurses are experiencing symptoms of CF, more research is needed to explain characteristics and management. In the beginning, the stress of trying to meet overwhelming patient and family needs was simply part of a nurses’ job. Nurses can sometimes neglect their own self-care in favor of focusing on their patients’ needs. Sustained stress without intervention can lead to nurses dreading work or certain patients, feel less empathy, or avoid work altogether. CF is a prevalent condition that requires attention from researchers, educators, and nurses themselves in order to develop resilience.
For a term that only emerged in 1992, an immense amount of research has been done on compassion fatigue. In addition to nurses, research has been done on other caregiving professions such as physicians, social workers, and chaplains. Since 2006, research has been done in pediatric, emergency & trauma, oncology, psychiatric, and hospice (Yang & Kim, 2012, p. 50). First, there is research on characteristics of compassion fatigue. Figley (1995) related the term to secondary traumatic stress disorder (STSD) to explain the phenomenon. Being able to identify symptoms and early signs of CF developed strategies for prevention and reduction. Most of the research discusses the detrimental long-term effects of CF and prevalence in clinicians (Sacco, Ciurzynski, Harvey, & Ingersoll, 20115, p. 34; Sheppard, 2015, p. 57; Lombardo & Eyre, 2011). This leads to further research on different interventions such as striving for work-life balance and self-care tips (Sacco, Ciurzynski, Harvey, & Ingersoll, 2015, p. 41; Potter, Deshields, Berger, Clarke, Olsen, & Chen, 2013, p. 186; Kelly & Todd, 2017, p. 357; Houck, 2014, p. 457).
Due to the increasing amount of research, there has been more identified at-risk groups of nurses suffering from CF. As with work stress, strategies for preventing and reducing CF is usually self-care techniques. Simple things like exercise, counseling, reading a book, taking a vacation, etc. are all ways to enhance the work/life balance. Coping with CF by being aware of stress levels and making self-care a priority are also ways to prevent CF. However, research found that it is more than just good coping skills that are beneficial to nurses’ mental health. Current practice has developed management programs in hospitals and institutions to support nurses. Things like education programs, on-site counseling, and support groups offered are used to teach nurses how to better identify and communicate symptoms (Potter, Deshield, Berger, Clarke, Olsen, ; Chen, 2013, p. 185; Lombardo ; Eyre, 2011). Other strategies include changing shifts, asking for time off or bereavement interventions to address the needs of the nurse when a patient dies (Lombardo ; Eyre, 2011). The current practice and research are clear in detailing the strategies needed for management of CF. However, CF will remain an elusive aspect of nurses’ work if there is limited application from the research.