compassion fatigue symptoms

Many care providers like nurses enter the profession with a passionate sense of duty to care for others. As they serve at the frontlines of their community’s medical needs, they’re often, if not daily, exposed to intense trauma. When confronted with the enormity of need, a sense of duty can sometimes blind nurses to their own needs as they prioritize patients over themselves. Compassion fatigue symptoms follow soon after.

Faculty experience with compassion fatigue

Brenda Ulmen is an assistant professor of nursing at Concordia. She began her career as an ER nurse before transitioning into a nurse educator role. Compassion fatigue is no stranger to her.  

During one of her first weeks as an ER nurse at Froedtert Hospital after transferring from Sheboygan Memorial Medical Center, Ulmen witnessed a resuscitation effort on a 21-year-old victim of a snowmobile accident. After an hour of CPR, the 21-year-old was declared dead. As the nurses and doctors around her gathered cords and unplugged equipment, they traded laughter and discussed their weekend plans. Ulmen was shocked.

“There were people who were disconnecting his oxygen, and laughing, and talking about their weekend,” Ulmen said. “And I was like, how can you do that right now? Someone just died.”

In a level-one trauma center like Froedtert, the ER runs at high capacity around the clock. Ulmen soon learned her coworkers’ disconnection was simply their way of coping with trauma and preparing themselves for the next one coming through the door. As countless other victims filtered through Ulmen’s care, she realized that she needed to figure out her own way of coping.

Learning overtime

“I didn’t get it then,” Ulmen said. “It [was] their way of coping, their way of not crying every time you see a 21-year-old die. . . You have to find ways to get around that. It seemed so heartless to me at the time. But after working there for 12 years. . . you can’t let it affect you so deeply or you can’t do your job.”  

Eventually, Ulmen chose to change her career path to become a nurse educator. Away from the constant exposure to medical trauma, Ulmen is now focused on investing in the next generation of nurses here at Concordia. She strives to equip them with the tools and knowledge on how to care for patients while also caring for themselves.

What Is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is a common problem in the medical field. Especially for nurses that work in high-stress and high-trauma areas like the ER, ICU, and oncology. According to the Oncology Nursing News, compassion fatigue leads to high nursing turnover and can affect patient care.  When oncology nurses experience compassion fatigue, the consequences can be dire: from nurses leaving their place of employment to implications for healthcare institutions, and — most importantly – decreased quality of patient care.

Ulmen believes that the best way to tackle compassion fatigue and prevent it from continuing to claim such high turnover rates is through education and awareness. Understanding what compassion fatigue is and what the symptoms look like is the first step toward healthier nurses.

American Nurse Today says, “nurses are at high risk for developing compassion fatigue, which can have a negative impact on nurses, patients, and organizations.” For many nurses, it’s more of a “when” rather than an “if” question when it comes to encountering compassion fatigue.

If you’re a nurse, are you prepared to recognize compassion fatigue symptoms in yourself?

Recognizing Compassion Fatigue Symptoms

Compassion fatigue symptoms can look different from one nurse to the next. Familiarizing yourself with some of the common symptoms, you can be more alert when they pop up in your life. Recognizing the symptoms early can help prevent compassion fatigue from growing into a chronic issue.

Here are some symptoms of Compassion Fatigue:

  • Fearfulness—Do you live in fearfulness of accidents taking place that you witnessed during work? For example, do you find yourself nervous to get in your car after tending to a car accident victim?
  • Reliving moments—Do you find yourself constantly reliving moments that happened throughout your day. Perhaps scenes of a patient passing away or possible alternative care routes which could have been taken?
  • Loss of appetite—Do you find yourself skipping meals or not feeling hungry when you pause to eat? Because nurses work long, demanding shifts, breaks are often skipped in favor of being there for the patient 24/7. As schedule demands grow and stress builds, it’s easy to skip meals. Weight loss often follows closely behind.  
  • Missed work—Are you missing work? Nurses who struggle with compassion fatigue often miss work, particularly when the demands of the job grow increasingly overwhelming.
  • Headaches or other illnesses—Do you find yourself encountering frequent headaches? Constant preoccupation with work can lead to the intense, increased stress that often manifests itself as headaches. Sometimes other illnesses also make an appearance, often capitalized upon by lack of sleep and weight loss.
  • Difficulty sleeping—When you finally get to bed, do you have trouble falling asleep? Do you experience bad dreams that relive traumatic events witnessed at work?
  • Loss of empathy—Do you find that you lack empathy or compassion as you interact with your patients? As compassion fatigue grows, nurses often numb themselves to the trauma they witness. It’s a last-resort coping mechanism simply just to get through the day. This can be accompanied by sudden and drastic mood changes and increased irritability.
  • Conflict—Do you have any increased conflict with your personal relationships? Are you angry more or more easily irritated?
  • Isolation—Are you isolating yourself or withdrawing from situations? Are you detaching yourself from a situation/ becoming numb to things?
  • Neglect self-care—Are you taking care of yourself and your basic needs? Are you increasing any medication or experiencing substance abuse?
  • Loss of interest—Do you no longer enjoy activities you used to enjoy or feel unmotivated to do anything?

If you find yourself nearing exhaustion and numbness at work, these are a few symptoms of compassion fatigue. Taking the time to identify and understand your symptoms will help you get to the root cause of your issue. Once there, you can plan a way to deal with the issue. You can heal from it and return to work with renewed vigor.

What’s next?

Whether you’ve been in the nursing profession for just a few months or for several decades, your health matters. We’re so thankful for people like you who pour so much of themselves into their patients. That’s why we want to make sure that you’re also pouring into yourself. It’s a model that we embrace here at Concordia as we prepare the next generation of nurses. We focus on whole-person development so nursing graduates are equipped with the tools for the profession.

Preparing students to deal with compassion fatigue is just one of the ways that we invest in our nursing students beyond classroom learning and clinical training. 

Explore our nursing program to learn more about how we prepare nursing students for every aspect of their careers.

Originally published on October 18, 2018. Is now updated with current information.