What Frontline Nurses Need to Know about Compassion Fatigue

| Last updated on November 20, 2023

Frontline nurses may be at higher risk of burnout and compassion fatigue if they have compassionate personalities.

Yet, we rely on compassionate personalities to improve patient outcomes, reduce patients’ stress and anxiety, and navigate difficult relationships with patients’ families. 

Compassion is actually a health benefit to medical professionals and patients alike. 

So, what can be done to reduce burnout and compassion fatigue in frontline nurses?

Read on to learn more about practical and immediate steps frontline nursing teams can take. 

Contents:

  • What is compassion fatigue?
  • Who can be affected by compassion fatigue?
  • The science of compassion
  • How to reduce compassion fatigue in frontline nursing

Key takeaways:

  • 95% of nurses have reported feeling burnout in the past 3 years
  • Compassion and kindness have shown to have strong patient benefits when it comes to pain reduction and improved outcomes
  • Healthcare leaders will be challenged with redefining the standards of care that come with the medical device, pharmaceutical, and medical technology products they adopt.
  • The are practical and immediate steps healthcare leadership teams can take to begin to alleviate compassion fatigue in frontline nurses 

What is compassion fatigue?

The definition of compassion is: the sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress, together with the desire to alleviate that distress. 

As you can imagine, compassion is an extremely important feature for medical providers to possess. 

Compassion is what helps a medical professional adopt a gentle bedside manner and listen to what matters to their patients beyond their medical condition.

However, a high degree of compassion can also lead to compassion fatigue. 

Compassion fatigue occurs when medical professionals can understand the needs of their patients, while at the same time feel unable to provide them with those needs. 

Who does compassion fatigue affect?

The idea that people with certain personality traits gravitate toward careers in the healthcare industry has been studied over the years. 

Studies show that qualities such as conscientiousness and agreeableness in frontline nurses have a positive impact on healthcare teams, as well as the quality of patient care being delivered. 

There are also studies that indicate a correlation between one’s personality type and one’s experience with stress and burnout - compassionate people may feel burnout more intensely than others.

Compassionate people seek to care for and nurture others - but what happens when over-nurturing impacts the health of the medical professional and patient outcomes?

Can over-nurturing cause burnout?

Highly compassionate people may fall into the pattern of “over-nurturing,” a term which describes becoming hyper focused on alleviating the pain or suffering of others. 

Over-nurturing highlights the degree to which frontline nurses can feel stress and overwhelm when they can’t alleviate the pain or suffering of their patients. 

Many nurses and other medical professionals have experienced compassion fatigue since the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Symptoms of burnout and compassion fatigue include: 

  • Insomnia
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Increased stress and/or anxiety
  • Decreased job satisfaction
  • Difficulty concentrating at work
  • Inability to find a work/home balance 

Symptoms of compassion fatigue in frontline workers may present as physical and/or mental exhaustion, and a diminished ability to cope with the everyday environment of suffering in a health care setting.

The toll of becoming jaded 

Compassion fatigue and burnout can have a serious effect on medical professionals’ individual health and wellbeing. 

Unfortunately, this also means that the quality of care they deliver to their patients may also be impacted. 

Increased stress in the workplace like high volumes of patients can overwhelm due to too many small tasks that must be completed for each patient, can increase a medical professiona’s frustration, and in some cases can lead to feeling jaded.

Feeling jaded in the medical community means that your compassion is compromised. When compassion is compromised nurses have burned out their stores of compassion. Burned out nurses may be less inclined to practice patient-centered care and have less energy to advocate for their patients needs. 

The science of compassion 

Despite the very real struggles of compassion fatigue amongst health workers, they still want to be empowered to do their best for their patients and communities. 

Why?

Because compassion can also be rewarding. 

Living your life with compassion can lead to many positives, such as:

  • Increased general happiness 
  • Decreased stress in daily life
  • Improved medical outcomes
  • Increased social connectedness

Compassion actually has a positive impact on your brain. 

When a person is thinking compassionate thoughts, areas in the brain which are associated with reward or pleasure are activated.

Families who have experienced even brief moments of compassion from frontline nurses or doctors described these encounters as extremely beneficial in terms of decreasing their anxiety or stress. 

The important thing is ensuring that these professionals, whom we rely on each and every day to help us through painful moments in our lives, have the support they need to carry on. 

So what do we do to sustain compassion in struggling frontline nurses? Read on for practical and tactical options for your healthcare team. 

How to reduce compassion fatigue in frontline nursing

In the past three years, 95% of nurses report feeling burnout at some point, compared to only 16.5% of nurses who reported feeling burnout in 2019.

Since 2020, hospitals and healthcare facilities have been under pressure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and then due to the COVID-19, RSV and flu triple-demic.  

What can we do to help?

  • Increase awareness of compassion fatigue
  • Improve managerial response to symptoms of burnout
  • Reduce health care worker tasks with compassionate technology 

In order to minimize the number of stressful tasks each worker must perform through the day, hospitals and other health care settings need to invest in compassionate care technologies and approaches.

Patient-centered, compassion-focused care improves patient outcomes, and improves the health of frontline nurses and other healthcare workers. 

With compassionate technologies - like those from Covalon - your healthcare providers can breathe easy through the day, knowing their patients are being given the highest standard of care with easy-to-use, infection-preventing, gentle devices.

Request your first box of free samples today to experience the difference between our compassionate medical care tools and the historic brands. 

Resources

Hawaii Pacific University - Burnout vs. Compassion Fatigue in Nursing

Ultimate Medical Academy - The importance of compassion in healthcare 

Canadian Medical Association - Compassion fatigue

Journal of Pediatric Orthopedics - Compassionate Care

The Health Care Manager - Personality traits and career satisfaction of health care professionals

European Journal of Public Health - Healthcare employee’s personality and service traits

BMC Nursing - Is there a relationship between personality and choice of nursing speciality 

Global News - Health care workers facing burnout even as COVID levels ease

Cleveland Clinic - What is burnout?

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health - Compassion Fatigue among Healthcare, Emergency and Community Service Workers

Harvard Business Review - How health Care workers can take care of themselves

Local and Regional Anesthesia - Burnout in Healthcare Workers: Prevalence, Impact and Preventative Strategies

Emergency Medicine News - Cruise control - the jaded contagion

Positive Psychology - 20 reasons why compassion is so important in psychology

AAMC  - Can compassion help heal patients and providers?

Journal of Comparative Effectiveness Research - Compassion as the foundation of patient-centered care

Clinics in Integrated Care - How do we sustain compassionate healthcare? 

Zippa Research - 15 nursing burnout statistics (2023)

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