Understanding Compassion Fatigue Part I: What it is and Who it Affects

All jobs wear us down in one way or another, be it physically, mentally, or emotionally. But the nursing profession is particularly difficult to sustain not just because of the stamina and strong stomach required to be working with ill and injured people, but also because of the compassion it necessitates. Therefore, while it may not be surprising the amount of compassion fatigue nurses suffer, it should cause concern; is there a way to minimize burnout in a profession that is already struggling with shortages? What does compassion fatigue look like, and how does it affect nurses and the patients they serve? This is the first of two blog posts in which we will aim to answer these questions.


What is compassion fatigue and what causes it?

            Compassion fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress disorder, is a condition that describes an individual’s inability to find satisfaction in their job, or when stress outweighs that satisfaction.[1]While burnout describes simply personal dissatisfaction, compassion fatigue is a relational experience, a perceived inability to attain a shared goal.[2]Being constantly bombarded with situations calling for kindness, care, and concern in addition to physical expectations makes a nurse’s job emotionally draining, reducing their emotional saturation. A person can become either overwhelmed or numb to emotions, making work too emotionally exhausting for them to respond healthily to patients or address their own health.

Any nurse can experience compassion fatigue, but nurses who work in oncology or see more patient deaths are likely at a greater risk.[3]Additionally, if a nurse is reminded of someone they know by a particular patient or patient’s family member or triggered by a sensory experience that is unexpectedly horrific, they are more likely to experience compassion fatigue. It is also important to note that nurses who skip breaks or take extra shifts might be more likely to develop compassion fatigue.[4]


What are the symptoms of compassion fatigue?

Nurses experiencing compassion fatigue might have a variety of reactions, and typically dread going to work. Here are some other indications a nurse might be suffering from the condition:[5]

  • Anger towards coworkers
  • Low self-esteem and feelings of failure
  • Feeling nervous and/or anxious
  • Extreme pessimism about work
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Boredom
  • Detachment or distance from patients and colleagues
  • Exhaustion
  • Sleeplessness

Additionally, as compassion fatigue progresses, it can manifest in physical symptoms as well, such as insomnia, headaches, queasiness, and backaches.[6]


What are some results of compassion fatigue?

Any health concerns facing nurses affect their patients too. Beyond the health concerns for nurses themselves suffering from compassion fatigue, patients served by them might receive insufficient or poor care due to inadequate nursing performance. Medical errors can be the result of poor judgment and decreased focus, and anger can result in patient abuse or poor communication between staff members.[7]Compassion fatigue may ultimately result not only in poor performance, but leaving the profession due to career dissatisfaction and a sense of emptiness.[8]


Witnessing human suffering on a daily basis is traumatic, even if it is your profession, and even if you don’t realize it. Our next post will focus more deeply on the effects of that trauma as well as how compassion fatigue has changed in recent years and how it can be addressed.



[1]Sheppard, Kate, “Compassion Fatigue,” American Nurse Today, n.d., https://www.americannursetoday.com/compassion-fatigue/

[2]Vroomen Durning, Marijke, “Compassion Fatigue: How Nurses Can Care For Themselves,” Oncology Nursing News, April 21, 2016, http://www.oncnursingnews.com/publications/oncology-nurse/2016/april-2016/compassion-fatigue-how-nurses-can-care-for-themselves

[3]Sheppard, “Compassion Fatigue”


[5]Vroomen Durning, “Compassion Fatigue: How Nurses Can Care For Themselves”

[6]Sheppard, “Compassion Fatigue”

[7]Harris, Chelsia, & Mary T. Quinn Griffin, “Nursing on Empty: Compassion Fatigue Signs, Symptoms, and System Interventions,” Journal of Christian Nursing, April/June 2015, 32(2), p. 80-87.