Burnout or Compassion Fatigue


I have been a nurse for more than 30 years. Over the years I have worked sometimes 2 jobs at a time, one full time one part-time. I admit that over the years I derived satisfaction from providing excellent care. Most of those years it was well known that nurses at times suffered from burn out from overwork and sustained the stress of the job. I felt fortunate that I never felt as if I was suffering from burnout but did at times feel less satisfied with the job I was doing. It is what is called : Compassion fatigue.

Compassion Fatigue vs Burnout  

Travel nurse compassion fatigue vs burnoutNurses are considered caring, compassionate professionals. We generally go to nurses for support, healing, and encouragement during a time of physical, emotional and spiritual anguish or distress.

Our ability to “feel their pain” to nurture and embrace ones suffering is compassion.

Compassion fatigue is a loss of satisfaction that comes from doing one’s job well or job-related distress that outweighs job satisfaction. Sometimes, just being exposed to someones traumatic experience leaves us feeling emotionally distraught. This is also known as secondary traumatic stress, a part of compassion fatigue.

As our sense of job satisfaction decreases, we may feel more burnout. Burnout can be a reaction to our work environment and stem from such conditions as short-staffing, long work hours, workplace incivility, and feeling dismissed or invalidated. This continuous giving of oneself puts us as nurses at risk of developing compassion fatigue. As travel nurses, we cannot give if we are fatigued and worn.

Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue

Like Burnout, you may not realize you are beginning to have symptoms of stress-related fatigue. You may also have family, friends, and coworkers who will begin to notice the changes and show concern. Some symptoms may not be as obvious as others.

What to look for:

  • Change in emotions – feeling detached, irritable and short tempered
  • Loss of a sense of pride in nursing abilities
  • Loss of sleep and worry over what may not have been done at work
  • Replaying disturbing events
  • Become forgetful at work and at home
  • Physically and mentally exhausted
  • A complaint of headache or backache
  • May feel anxious as you get close to work or enter the door of the workplace

It is important to recognize these symptoms and take action to care for yourself. Those who do not may be at risk of work performance changes as they:

  • start to call in sick more frequently.
  • become short-tempered, sarcastic, or rude to colleagues and even to patients or families.
  • may appear tired and may become more easily startled.
  • could attempt to reduce their emotional saturation through alcohol or drug use.

Ultimately, when emotional saturation becomes too intense, some nurses may view leaving the profession as the only means of escape.

Reducing Compassion Fatigue

Travel nurse compassion fatigue | get helpOnce you realize you are suffering from compassion fatigue, how do you reduce or even prevent compassion fatigue? You need to start by being aware of how you feel physically and emotionally.

If you recognize that interactions with a specific colleague begin to feel uncomfortable or unpleasant, try to explore what’s beneath that feeling.

If you begin to feel overlooked, ignored, invalidated, unfairly treated, or criticized—try to make a change so you don’t compound your feelings with guilt and shame. When you experience negative emotions, pay attention to how you feel physically. Bring physical and emotional feelings to the surface so that you can more efficiently address the underlying cause.

Managing Compression Fatigue

What are some ways to manage or reduce compression fatigue:

  • Establish healthy boundaries
  • Learn to take care of yourself
  • Bring hobbies and activities back into your life (assuming you have dropped them)
  • Do something for yourself every day
  • Practice self-compassion and positive self-talk
  • Practice self-reflection and mindfulness (helps with stress reduction)

As nurses, we can reduce our risk of compassion fatigue by realizing our triggers, practicing mindfulness, avoiding self-criticism. And then replace them with kind self-talk, and engaging in daily self-care activities. If your symptoms are more profound and you’re suffering from sleeplessness, poor self-care, loss of interest, or other symptoms of distress, reach out for help. Most employers have an employee assistance program or a mental health provider. And it is best to seek help before emotions grow so strong that they become an overwhelming blur of anger, resentment, frustration, or helplessness.

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Cheryl Roby, RN

Cheryl J. Roby is a Registered Nurse and retired US Army Reserve Nurse Major. She has more than 30 years of nursing experience and 26 years of military experience in the Army Nurse Corp. During her nursing career, she has traveled as part of her military experience visiting many of the 50 states and to South Korea. She was trained as an Army Medic during the Vietnam era and later as an OR tec. She went on to become a Licensed Practical Nurse and then completed her nursing training as a Registered Nurse. She was then commissioned as an officer in the Army Reserves. She appreciated the challenge of working in various specialties and expanding her clinical and professional skill sets. Her time in the Army Reserves and California National Guard gave her the opportunity to travel to most of the 50 states and work in other medical facilities. During her career, she had the opportunity to work in several specialties to include, OR, Occupational Health, Hospice, Sexual Assault Team, Forensic/ Correctional Nurse, Nurse Case Manager for developmental disabilities, Parish Nursing as well as a Nurse Entrepreneur.

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