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Compassion Fatigue

Published on
27 July 2020
Written by

During a crisis front-line staff want to share, connect and make contact.

Lydia Hartland-Rowe, Maintaining mental health in the time of coronavirus

Front-line healthcare staff have been facing an onslaught of trauma far in excess of anything they’ve experienced before in terms of numbers of seriously ill patients and, tragically, numbers of deaths.

Many have had to move to working in ICUs for the first time and even for those familiar with working in them, the intensity of the Covid-19 crisis has been exhausting and traumatic.

The concept of Compassion Fatigue was established in the 1990s to address the impact of those working in the caregiving professions who were finding that intense immersion in the trauma of others was having debilitating effects on their health, well-being and ability to function.

What exactly is Compassion Fatigue?

A distressing syndrome, suffered by those who least deserve it, and easily preventable by ensuring simple procedures are in place; Compassion Fatigue’s effects are not only found at times of crisis but can be experienced in any healthcare setting, especially by new members of staff, or those overwhelmed by large numbers of patients &/or experiencing exceptionally long shifts.  

It is not caused by weakness or inability to feel compassion.

Some, particularly those who lack strong support networks, can be more vulnerable and can find themselves feeling isolated, drained and caught up in the traumatic experiences of their patients. 

The symptoms include:

  • difficulty concentrating

  • feeling overwhelmed 

  • hyperarousal 

  • isolation

  • withdrawal 

  • exhaustion

  • intrusive thoughts

  • secretive addictions

  • difficulty sleeping 

  • intense feelings (often bottled up) of anxiety, apathy, guilt, self-criticism, self-blame, anger, irritability, powerlessness…

And more. 

Disturbingly, a large study found 25%-50% of healthcare works in the USA experience its debilitating symptoms. It is an important syndrome to identify because it harms the sufferers and potentially their patients – and it is prevented by ensuring that the basic essential human needs of staff are attended to by the organisation – and by themselves.  

Identifying Compassion Fatigue enables those who were being harmed by the very thing that brought them into the caring professions to be protected and supported while they recover.

Throughout long shifts, regular short breaks, such as spending just 5 minutes sharing experiences with a colleague, has been identified as a major protective factor from Compassion Fatigue. This and other basic strategies – such as briefings, huddles, and ensuring that staff know that they are valued – lead to staff being less drained and better able to look after themselves and each other.

You can help protect yourself by valuing yourself and practising Self-Care. Regular exercise, talking to friends/family, sleep hygiene, healthy eating, and perhaps most importantly practising Self-Compassion have been found to give powerful protection from experiencing the vicarious trauma of Compassion Fatigue. 

You matter. This matters.  No one benefits if care is not taken of the carers.