Every day is hard. You see things that, yeah, you knew about them from nursing school, but up close? They’re different. And for a while, a long time, it made you feel anxious and sad. A few years in, that’s gone, but something else is as well. Something essential and human. You feel emotionally stale and irritable on the job, and sometimes at home too.
Compassion fatigue. It’s a common experience for people who work in emotionally draining jobs like crisis nursing.
In this article, we look at how to identify it, and what to do next.
First, What is Compassion Fatigue?
As the name suggests, compassion fatigue essentially occurs when your empathy begins to run on fumes. It’s not that you don’t care about other people. More that you encounter so much suffering and pain that if it all tore you to pieces, there’d be nothing of you left.
There are good versions of this and bad versions. As a crisis nurse, you need a little bit of professional distance between you and the people you’re helping. That’s part of what makes you a superhero, right? Because you’re the person that goes toward the thing everyone else is trying to get away from. The emergency, the natural disaster.
But as a consequence, you see things every day that would be deeply troubling to the average person. Most nurses will feel sad when bad things happen, but they need to remain removed enough from the situation to do their jobs effectively.
That’s fine. Compassion fatigue in the context that we are discussing today takes things a little further. It happens when your capacity for empathy has shrunken based on the number of times situations appeal to your empathy.
In other words, you start to feel jaded. That’s something you don’t want. Too much emotional distance diminishes your ability to do your job. It can also interfere with your personal life. But how can you push back against compassion fatigue when you are walking into a new disaster every day?
Keep an Eye Out for the Signs
As with anything, compassion fatigue is easiest to nip in the bud at its earliest stages. Because you work in a career path where the risk for compassion fatigue is very high, it’s a good idea to always keep one eye on the lookout for signs that you are being affected.
The symptoms of compassion fatigue are listed as: irritability, headaches, low-self esteem, trouble concentrating, lack of joy, or addictive tendencies.
If any of these signs begin to rear their ugly heads, or if you simply have noticed that you don’t feel the way you used to about your job anymore, it may be time to start looking for help.
Confronting Compassion Fatigue
Work-related stress is a very common reason for people to seek help with their mental and emotional health. Therapy? For one thing, I don’t have the time.
It probably feels that way. You have a demanding job, and if you also have a family, that pretty much sops up the rest of your time right there. Two things to think about: If your schedule is so packed to the gills that you can’t set aside one hour a week to work on your mental health, it’s probably a sign that you need that hour very badly.
The other thing? Getting mental health help is easier than ever. Not only has the social stigma softened considerably around therapy, but the options have increased. It’s now easier than ever to get therapy online, through instant messaging, or even video chat.
It’s all about finding the option that works best for you. Something will inevitably be better than nothing, but do take it seriously.
Talk to Your Supervisor at Work
It’s also important to speak with your supervisor at work. You may feel hesitant to do so. Isn’t that a little like telling them you are no longer capable of doing your job? It’s not. They will understand exactly where you are coming from. Probably, they will have experienced the exact same thing at some point in their careers.
Your supervisor may be able to adjust your schedule a little bit to help you work through this difficult period in your life. Alternatively, they may know of work-related resources that can help you out. Even if they don’t, though, it still helps to name your struggle. Problems feel much bigger when you keep them to yourself.
Work on Your Schedule
You can fight back against work-related mental health problems by optimizing your schedule toward health and wellness. This will include getting enough sleep, eating right, exercising, and taking time for things that you find meaningful.
Yes, we are once again talking about things that take time, and that’s probably not something you have in abundance. Here’s the deal: to be an effective professional, parent, or even just person, you need to take care of yourself.
You can’t put that off for too long before everything else begins to crack and crumble a little bit. Making smart choices that benefit yourself is a good way to not only fight back against compassion fatigue but also to improve every other aspect of your life as well.
Know When to Fold Them
It’s also important to be able to recognize when a problem is bigger than you can handle. Maybe that will mean shifting to a different nursing rotation, taking time off, or pursuing a different career path altogether.
That may sound extreme — in fact, it is — but it’s also the route many people ultimately choose to take. Nursing has an extremely high turnover rate for the simple fact that it is hard. Really, really, hard. The hours are grueling. The schedules are insane, and the things you see are beyond comprehension to people who have never worked in healthcare.
It’s a job that exhausts and erodes. If you’ve taken every possible step to reduce your stress and nothing has taken, it may be time to consider changing things up at the professional level — even if only for a while. You aren’t doing anyone any favors by staying in a job that makes you miserable.
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