Compassion Corner: How to Avoid Compassion Fatigue in Nursing

Compassion [kuhmpash-uhn] noun
A feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

Compassion Corner is a series from Patient Worthy that will focus on the subject of compassion in the healthcare and rare disease space. In this series, we explore the role of compassion in this field and what it means for caregivers, patients, and others.

source: recently carried a report featuring an analysis of the demands of nursing between 2010 and 2017. Twenty studies were analyzed. The review found that nurses were often at risk of compassion fatigue and burnout due to constant exposure to the suffering of others and a high-stress work environment.

To practice compassionate care, a healthcare worker must have an understanding of the patient’s distress, plus a sincere desire to ease their stress.

Perhaps ‘boots on the ground’ would be an apt description of their daily level of attention to patients. Yet many compassionate nurses still take on the role of patient advocate.

Usually, the first person a surgical patient sees after the operation is a nurse. The initial period after surgery can be frightening, lonely, and stressful. The nurse guides the patient helping to allay those fears.

Nurse Coping Skills

A key factor that can help nurses build resistance to burnout is to practice coping skills. Other habits worth developing are:

  • Acknowledging feelings and expressing vulnerabilities
  • Joining others in creating a strong community
  • Reflecting and debriefing; talking to others to process emotions
  • Practicing self-compassion
  • Set boundaries, step back, and take a break without guilt
  • Take care of yourself

Nonverbal Communication

Nurse Katherine Clark of Medstar at the University of Georgetown advises the importance of understanding what a patient is saying without their saying it. Nurse Katherine emphasizes the importance of creating a calm and comfortable atmosphere without the need for verbal instructions.

Working with Patients in the Emergency Room

ER nurses are required to establish a connection in a very limited timeframe. Nurse Alyssa Verrillo is with the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. She emphasizes that it is even more difficult trying to understand the emotions of children. Nurse Alyssa says children can tell you so much with just their eyes and body movements. Then she is able to translate her instructions about treatment into their own language.

Even tiny infants can respond with body language when they become less anxious if they are swaddled tightly.

A big factor in a nurse’s assessment of patients involves social cues such as verbal, body language, and facial expressions. Nurse Alyssa notes that it is important to watch what a patient does not say as opposed to what they do say. An example would be facial expressions showing irritation or discomfort when asked certain questions.

Sara Kent, a Los Angeles intensive care nurse, cautions that some medications used in the ICU can cause amnesia or simply make the patient sleepy. Nurse Sara reminds the reader that even when sedated the patients can hear the medical team.

Nurse Advocates

Nurses often become advocates for their patients and fight for the best possible care in the limited time they have. One example would be working with a social worker to create a thorough discharge plan. Another may be creating an atmosphere of dignity for a veteran with PTSD.

Scientific literature refers to ‘something’ that reduces post-operative pain, lowers the mortality rate of cardiac patients, lessens the risk for cancer patients, and reduces diabetics’ hospitalization rate. This mysterious substance also boosts the immune system. This amazing substance is compassion.


Rose Duesterwald

Rose Duesterwald

Rose became acquainted with Patient Worthy after her husband was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) six years ago. During this period of partial remission, Rose researched investigational drugs to be prepared in the event of a relapse. Her husband died February 12, 2021 with a rare and unexplained occurrence of liver cancer possibly unrelated to AML.

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