Compassion fatigue is common in the nursing profession. Put a plan in place now to prevent it from taking over your career.
A few weeks ago, we started a discussion on compassion fatigue by highlighting some of the common symptoms of compassion fatigue. Today, we’re continuing the conversation by outlining a few steps that nurses can take to promote compassion fatigue prevention.
It’s important to note that compassion fatigue symptoms are normal responses to the heavy demands placed on individuals who are in the nursing profession, especially considering the level of trauma that nurses live through every single day. But just like any other kind of trauma, when it goes unattended, it can turn toxic. And when it turns toxic, hurt people hurt people. The key? Have a plan of action in place for how you’ll respond when you encounter compassion fatigue. Not only will a plan ensure that your personal health stays a priority, but it will also help you to preserve the high level of care you are able to offer each patient you serve.
Compassion Fatigue Prevention
As you think through ways that you can encourage compassion fatigue prevention for yourself, remember this: every nurse is different. For example, following a traumatic event, you might need more familial support than your coworker while he requires more alone time to process. It’s important to do the hard work of digging in and uncovering what compassion fatigue looks and feels like for you specifically. Use the following items as a starting point and add to them to customize your response plan to fit your personality and your lifestyle.
Step 1: Care for yourself first.
Just as flight attendants instruct us to first secure our own oxygen masks before tending to a child or an elderly individual, so too we must first take care of ourselves if we hope to make an impact on our patients. Caring for yourself starts with simple things like taking your earned breaks to rest for a moment, making time to eat meals during your shift, and actually pausing to use the restroom. A huge part of caring for yourself first also includes not taking on more work than you can handle. Recognize your physical and mental limits and honor them so that you are able to offer patients your best self during your scheduled shifts.
Step 2: Identify a support system.
A support system is an important component for anyone to have, but it’s especially important for nurses. As you think through your support systems, identify a healthy mix of people from your workplace and other individuals from outside of work to comprise your system. Individuals from your facility like trusted supervisors or fellow nurses can help you deal with the fatigue through shared experiences while other close friends and family members can help by giving you a sacred place away from work to process the trauma you encounter. Both are valuable and both can help provide a safe place to process and unpack trauma and stress experienced throughout your day.
Step 3: Check your health.
Make a commitment to check in on your mental and physical health regularly, perhaps every month or every quarter. Take stock of the trauma you witnessed and identify your conscious and unconscious responses to them. Are any of them unhealthy? Sometimes it helps to unpack all of this with a trusted individual from your support system or even a professional counselor or therapist.
Evaluate your physical health too—are you feeling more tired than usual? Have you been experiencing headaches a lot? All of these symptoms point to a larger impending problem. Checking your health on a routine schedule can help identify early signs of compassion fatigue to prevent them from turning into full-blown symptoms that threaten the effectiveness of your work.
Step 4: Step away from work.
When you have a day off from work, take advantage of it by participating in activities that are therapeutic for you—whether they be hobbies or pastimes. Because caring for people is in your DNA and drives you to give your all everyday, it’s also important to set up boundaries. Make a commitment to say no to overtime if that extra shift takes away your only free time. Sacrificing your days off means sacrificing time where you can fully step away from work and invest in yourself.
The most important aspect of responding to compassion fatigue is just that—that you respond. And as you begin noticing and responding to your compassion fatigue symptoms, you’ll start to build resilience every time you stop, respond, and take care of that symptom. As your resilience grows, so will the depth of care that you are able to provide to your patients.
If you need help figuring out the best way to deal with your compassion fatigue, we recommend seeking out the help of a mentor in the nursing profession or a mental health professional who can help you manage and unpack the stress you’re encountering. Often times institutions will offer free therapy and counseling services through an Employee Assistance Program. Check with your human resources department to see if your employer offers a program like this.
Compassion fatigue is just one of the many obstacles that nurses can encounter as they give of themselves to help others. As our students prepare to enter the workforce, we know they need so much more than just classes and clinics; they also need education and tools for how to stay healthy as they prepare to enter this demanding yet life-giving profession. That’s why we take so much care to teach our students valuable life lessons like how to encourage compassion fatigue prevention in their own lives.
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