Skip to main content

Compassion fatigue in healthcare workers: 6 proactive ways to stay engaged

We've all seen the images: Medical staff masked, gowned and shielded, holding up smartphones so families could say goodbye to their loved ones. Team members comforting terrified patients whose family couldn't come into the facility.

Besides long hours, personal risk and a grueling workload, healthcare workers face the mental toll of caring for patients who aren't getting better. Add to that the near-constant need to reassure and empathize with worried family members and it's no wonder stress levels have risen.

These emotional stresses can lead to a special type of fatigue unique to healthcare – compassion fatigue.

What is compassion fatigue?

Experts describe compassion fatigue as a reaction to taking in the stress of those around you. Like sponges, healthcare workers absorb the pain, sadness and suffering of patients and their families.

If you're experiencing these feelings, you may be experiencing secondary traumatic stress. This secondary stress can become hard to manage, especially when coupled with the challenges you face daily, such as fatigue, managing heavy patient loads and other workplace challenges.

Compassion fatigue can increase absenteeism and job turnover. Left unchecked, these feelings can have harmful effects – on you and, potentially, your patients.

Compassion fatigue versus burnout

Compassion fatigue can feel like burnout, but their root causes are different. Burnout typically builds over time. While burnout can result from factors like overloaded schedules and job-related stress, trauma isn't a factor in its development.

According to the American Institute of Stress, compassion fatigue in healthcare workers can develop quickly, even after just one difficult patient case. Compassion fatigue can also build up slowly when you witness patients suffering over time.

It's important to know the signs of compassion fatigue and to take action when you begin to experience these feelings.

Compassion fatigue symptoms

You might not recognize what you're experiencing as compassion fatigue. Some symptoms may mirror those of burnout, so it's important to pay close attention to your feelings. It's also important to know that you can experience burnout and compassion fatigue at the same time.

Many people notice similar physical symptoms. With either, you might experience:

  • Appetite changes
  • Drinking alcohol more often or using drugs
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Physical or mental exhaustion
  • Sleep problems
  • Trouble making decisions

It's also important to be on the lookout for the emotional and cognitive symptoms of compassion fatigue. These can include:

  • An inability to feel empathy
  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating
  • Feeling disconnected from those around you, including your patients and coworkers
  • Getting angry or anxious more easily than you normally would
  • Lacking a feeling of purpose or meaning in your work
  • Ruminating about patients or other troubling situations
  • Wanting to be alone or isolating yourself from others

Sometimes, healthcare workers experience compassion fatigue when they hear about traumatic patient situations, even if they weren't involved. While sharing stories and venting to coworkers can help manage stress, stay mindful of how these exchanges make you feel. It's OK to disengage when you need to.

How does compassion fatigue affect patient care?

Compassion fatigue's negative impacts aren't confined only to healthcare workers. Your patients can also suffer when you're feeling this particular type of stress.

When you're experiencing compassion fatigue, you might:

  • Be unable to show your patients empathy
  • Call out of work more often
  • Communicate poorly with patients and coworkers
  • Experience slower reaction times
  • Feel impatient with colleagues
  • Make errors in judgment that could harm a patient
  • Miss opportunities for patient care

At a system level, compassion fatigue can make workforce retention a challenge for healthcare facilities. Speak with your manager if your feelings are impacting your job performance. You might benefit from taking some time off or changing your schedule.

If you are feeling, or your team is feeling, the effects of compassion fatigue, there are some proactive strategies that can help.

6 strategies for preventing and managing compassion fatigue

Successful compassion fatigue treatment begins with prevention. But if you begin to notice behavior changes in yourself – or if others point out that you don't seem like yourself – try these strategies:

1. Taking care of yourself physically can help you better manage your stress levels and your emotions. Pay attention to your sleep and hydration habits, and try to eat regular, nutritious meals.

2. Maintaining an exercise routine can help restore your physical and mental energy. But you don't need to hit the gym to get these benefits. If time is an issue, try to build more activity into your day, such as taking the stairs, parking farther away from the door or walking a few laps around the building during a break.

3. Tracking your mental health and finding ways to release difficult feelings is critical. Connecting with a colleague, friend or family member can help. You can also try:

  • Listening to a guided meditation
  • Reading books that address compassion fatigue
  • Spending a few minutes on a hobby, like drawing, knitting or playing music
  • Taking a few deep breaths
  • Visualizing a peaceful place where you feel happy and calm
  • Watching a funny video on TikTok or YouTube
  • Writing in your journal

4. Building and maintaining a support network in times of stress can create a "release valve" for pent-up emotions. Whether it's that friend who always makes you laugh or that colleague who loves to swap healthy recipes, lean on your network when you need to. Letting others be there for you in difficult times helps strengthen relationships.

5. Setting boundaries can help you manage your energy. When you spend your days taking care of others, it can be difficult to switch out of that mindset. If you tend to be a people-pleaser, try saying "no" to requests for your time. Prioritize taking care of yourself and putting your own needs first until you're feeling better.

6. Speaking with a mental health professional can help you resolve compassion fatigue. If it's impacting your ability to care for patients – or your health and happiness – a therapist or counselor can help you work through your emotions and develop healthy strategies for managing them.

Checking in with yourself regularly can help address compassion fatigue before it impacts your own health or your job performance. Count on these strategies whenever you experience compassion-related stress.