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My Turn
Compassion Fatigue?
Charles Figley
Publish Date: October 10, 2007

Have any of your employees or colleagues developed trouble concentrating, become more negative or absent than usual, been unusually obsessed with details or certain patients, or started avoiding tasks altogether? If so, they may be suffering from compassion fatigue.

Simply put, compassion fatigue is the cost of caring. It is an emotional exhaustion that comes from living your patients' stresses, struggles and fears day in and day out. It differs from plain old job burnout in that burnout stems from dissatisfaction with the work environment, whereas compassion fatigue arises from a deep concern that some find difficult if not impossible to allay. Caregivers suffer from it because compassion is a primary demand of the job, and many caregivers enter into the profession precisely because they are empathetic.

Unfortunately, compassion fatigue may be more prevalent now than in the recent past. The tragedy of 9/11, the war in Iraq, the growing uninsured population and the flu-shot shortage are constant reminders that healthcare providers are on the front lines of some serious crises that face our country. Couple these concerns with the fact that nurses tend to do double- or triple-duty by volunteering for healthcare organizations after-hours and nurturing children at home, and compassion fatigue becomes a matter of when - not if - in a person who is innately sensitive to the plights of others.

Recognition is the antidote
The good news is that compassion fatigue is both preventable and treatable. Caregivers can take a self-test to screen for compassion fatigue and readily alleviate the symptoms by routinely removing themselves from the context of caregiving to undertake restorative tasks, like gardening or reading.

Most importantly, managers can prevent the build-up of compassion fatigue in the first place by consistently letting caregivers know that they are appreciated. Celebrate as often as possible all of the good that your caregivers do for your facility and for your patients. Try to ensure that they have someone to talk to who understands their concerns, perhaps by instituting a buddy system. In essence, a consistent and acute sense of understanding and satisfaction offsets the emotional cost of caring.

Keep performers performing
Ironically, the most compassionate caregivers are often the best caregivers, and they're often drawn to the profession precisely because the opportunity to help people on a daily basis is somewhat addictive to them. If, as managers of surgical facilities, you can help ensure that your caregivers' senses of satisfaction remain real and strong, it will pay off in spades. Your top performers will continue to perform to the best of their abilities.