Understanding Compassion Fatigue Part II: Recent Changes and Addressing the Problem

As discussed in our previous post, compassion fatigue is a condition affecting many different types of professionals, but a condition that hits nurses particularly hard, and at great cost. This post will continue to build upon the information from Part I, and will go into more detail about the resulting sensations of compassion fatigue, recent developments in the medical field that have increased its spread, and some potential solutions to the problem.


What happens when compassion fatigue is left unchecked?

Burnout and compassion fatigue are affecting health care centers and systems in all fields and across the country.[1]One study categorized compassion fatigue into four types of causes and effects, and these are helpful in understanding the ultimate feelings behind and results of the phenomenon:[2]

  • Feeling “just plain worn out.”This type of compassion fatigue is manifested in physical symptoms, in sleepiness and bodily fatigue. The physical inability to go on prevents nurses from enjoying, believing in, and doing their job effectively.
  • Feeling like you’re “walking on a tight rope.”In this situation, it is emotional symptoms that take a toll on a nurse – a sense of hopelessness, incompetence, insecurity, anxiety, or not feeling like yourself can also have the effect of minimized care about the job, and like you can’t sustain it much longer.
  • Feeling an“unbearable weight on the shoulders.”This can often be triggered by the workplace, when short staffing, excessive grief caused by visions of suffering, or a high-pressure work environment make nurses feel like they are being asked to do too much to the point of overwhelming them.
  • Feeling “alone in a crowded room.”Also triggered by the work environment, this symptom of compassion fatigue happens when a nurse lacks support of managers, administrators, or other nurse colleagues. Feeling out of place, ostracized, and/or incapable to handle such a situation can definitely make a nurse leave the field.


How the situation is becoming more complicated

As we’ve pointed out in many prior posts, this country is facing a serious nursing shortage. If nurses are being overworked and handling more patients due to insufficient staffing, there is a greater chance they will develop compassion fatigue. Short staffing is connected to higher infection rates, preventable falls, and general death rates.[3]Even if a nurse is coming from a well-staffed hospital, the risk of losing valuable individuals to this condition means the sacrificing of staff that are so desperately needed.

Additionally, some culture changes are leading to new types of compassion fatigue. For instance, due to technology and legal concerns, cesarean deliveries and medically induced labor have increased in the United States over the past decade.[4]This has made many obstetrics nurses feel more like assembly line workers, detaching them emotionally from their work.[5]


Ways to combat this condition

Compassion fatigue is not an easy problem to solve; no matter what we do, it will continue to affect nurses due to the nature of their work. However, there are things that can be done to lessen it. Here are a few things to keep in mind when considering how we might address the condition and its effects:

  • Acknowledge what it is not.Compassion fatigue is not a character flaw, and it also isn’t something that can simply be overcome by working harder.[6]Myths like these must be combated and nurses validated for their feelings if we are going to confront this condition head-on.
  • Support employee assistance programs. If hospitals have teams who can debrief employees after they’ve gone through a traumatic situation, there is a better chance their staff will feel valued and recover in a healthy manner.
  • Keep leadership accountable. Work environments are critical for maintaining nursing staff, and keeping them from developing compassion fatigue. Providing support and insuring an environment with open communication and a value of positive, respectful relationships is crucial.[7]
  • Take care of yourself.Nurses are often thought of as being selfless, but it’s important for nurses and their administrators to acknowledge their needs and self-care practices. Simply taking the time to take decent care of one’s own physical and mental health can be huge leaps towards warding off compassion fatigue.[8]


Though compassion fatigue is not a problem that can be solved overnight, it is something we need to start chipping away at now. Until we start addressing it seriously, nursing numbers will continue to drop, and those that remain will be suffering all the more with potential adverse effects in the work setting.



[1]Sentinel, Holland, “Beating the burnout: Nurses struggle with physical, mental and emotional exhaustion at work,” National Nurses United, Jan. 27, 2014, https://www.nationalnursesunited.org/news/beating-burnout-nurses-struggle-physical-mental-and-emotional-exhaustion-work

[2]Nolte, Anna GW, Downing, Charlene, Temane, Annie, & Marie Hastings-Tolsma, “Compassion fatigue in nurses: A metasythnesis,” Journal of Clinical Nursing, Feb. 23, 2017, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jocn.13766

[3]Sentinel, “Beating the burnout”

[4]Thielking, Megan, “Sky-high C-section rates in the US don’t translate to better birth outcomes,” STAT News, Dec. 1, 2015, https://www.statnews.com/2015/12/01/cesarean-section-childbirth/

[5]Sentinel, “Beating the burnout”

[6]Buttaccio, Jennifer Lelwica, “4 Myths About Compassion Fatiuge,” Daily Nurse, May 22, 2017, https://dailynurse.com/4-myths-compassion-fatigue/

[7]Sentinel, “Beating the burnout”

[8]Buttaccio, “4 Myths”