What Is Compassion Fatigue?

a female nurse with compassion fatigueThe American Institute of Stress defines compassion fatigue as “the emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events.”

But what does that even mean?

Merriam-Webster provides us with a clearer definition. It defines compassion fatigue as “the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time.” In other words, it is the price caregivers pay for caring.

Compassion fatigue goes by many different names. Vicarious traumatization. Secondary traumatization. Second-hand shock. Left unaddressed, it can have dire consequences for those giving and receiving care.

Signs & Symptoms

According to Psychology Today, some common symptoms of compassion fatigue are:

  • Feeling burdened by the suffering of others;
  • Blaming others for their suffering;
  • Isolating yourself;
  • Loss of pleasure in life;
  • Difficulty concentrating;
  • Insomnia;
  • Physical and mental fatigue;
  • Bottling up your emotions;
  • Increased nightmares;
  • Feelings of hopelessness or powerlessness;
  • Overeating;
  • Excessive use of drugs or alcohol; and/or
  • Poor self-care.

If you identify with any of these symptoms, consider completing the Professional Quality of Life (ProQOL) questionnaire. This 30-item, self-report questionnaire can help you determine if you’re experiencing compassion fatigue.


5 Ways To Prevent Compassion Fatigue

1. Prioritize Mental, Emotional & Physical Health

Do you make time for your mental, emotional and physical health every day?

If you’re like most nurses, the answer is probably “no.” Your time at and away from work is likely spent attending to the needs of others. When you do get a moment to yourself, exhaustion sets in and you promise yourself you’ll make time for self-care tomorrow.

The only problem is “tomorrow” never comes…at least not the way you expected it would.

As nurses, we are literally the tools of our trade. When we are mentally, emotionally and physically “out of shape,” our ability to provide the best care possible is diminished. Additionally, our personal relationships, self esteem and ability to “bounce back” suffer too.

Research has shown that 10 minutes a day is all that is needed to reap the benefits of self-care. Here’s a starter list of self-care ideas to get you thinking:

  • Go for a walk and get some steps in;
  • Find a quiet place and practice breathing exercises;
  • Write in a gratitude journal;
  • Make a point to drink more water;
  • Text, call or FaceTime with a friend;
  • Use a meditation app; or
  • Work on a puzzle (e.g., crossword, sudoku, jigsaw).
2. Access Support

As a caregiver, you’re viewed as the one with all the answers and solutions. People turn to you in their hour of need because you know how to “make it right.”

However, others’ perceptions of your abilities can be detrimental to your well-being.

Think about it…How many nurses do you know that never ask for help? When was the last time you told yourself to “toughen up” or “just get over it”?

Because nurses are “fixers,” they often come to believe that they should be able to solve all their own problems too. But like Bill Wither sings, “we all need somebody to lean on.”

In the fight against compassion fatigue, nurses NEED to proactively seek out the support of others. Loved ones, trusted friends, online support groups and mental health professionals are all great resources. Ultimately, seeking the support of others will help you:

  • Feel less lonely, isolated or judged;
  • Reduce depression and anxiety;
  • Gain a sense of empowerment and control;
  • Find advice and practical information; and
  • Learn healthy coping skills.
3. Focus on Purpose

Research shows that the more you focus on “living your purpose,” the more you minimize your risk for compassion fatigue.

But what does it mean to have a purpose? And how do you (as a nurse) find and cultivate yours?

At its most basic level, a purpose “is the motivation that drives you toward a satisfying future” (Sense of Purpose). It is what pushes you to achieve your goals. It is your “guiding light” day in and day out.

Think back to when you applied to nursing school. Why did you want to become a nurse? If you’re like most healthcare professionals, you had an inner drive to help people, to alleviate suffering.

However, along the way, policies and procedures got in the way and your passion for helping began to fade.

You can begin to reclaim the joy you once felt by focusing on the positive difference you make each day. For instance, on your commute home from work, think of three ways you can complete this sentence: I’m a good nurse because I did _____ today.

What you put in the blank doesn’t have to be big or magnanimous. It just needs to reflect how you stayed true to your purpose to help others.

4. Set Emotional Boundaries

Just like a physical boundary (e.g., fence, river, mountain range), an emotional boundary creates “separateness.” It separates what emotions are yours to deal with from those that are not.

That being said, it can be extremely difficult to set and abide by emotional boundaries as a nurse. After all, aren’t you required to extend compassion and empathy to your patients?

While you have an obligation to listen to, encourage and educate your patients, you are not required to take on their struggles. You are there to assist in their journey, not make the trek for them.

So, what are some signs that you might have weak emotional boundaries?

  • You don’t speak up when you’re treated badly.
  • You feel underappreciated and taken for granted.
  • You say “yes” when you really want to say “no.”
  • You give away too much of your time and energy.
  • You believe you must always put others before yourself.

While it may be initially difficult to set emotional boundaries, this practice will ultimately allow you to act with more empathy and compassion. Don’t believe it? Check out this insightful video from Brené Brown:

5. Give Travel Nursing a Try

When dealing with compassion fatigue, a change of scenery is sometimes all that is needed to set things right again.

That’s where travel nursing can help!

As a travel nurse, you will work at healthcare facilities on a short-term basis (generally 13 weeks). This not only allows you to change your physical environment frequently it also allows you to change practice settings. For instance, an experienced ER nurse can easily transition to a med-surg unit, a psychiatric unit or a clinic setting.

In addition to keeping things fresh and new, travel nursing can be tailored to fit your lifestyle and needs. For example, some nurses choose to go to far away places, while others work at facilities in their own backyard.

Find out more about a career as a travel nurse. Read our blog post: 6 Benefits of a Travel Nursing Career.

If you think travel nursing is the right next step for you, the placement experts at Premier Medical Staffing Services would love to talk to you. We understand how tough nursing can be and we want to help you find your joy and passion again.


To have one of our travel nursing specialists contact you, please complete the short contact form below. We will be in touch shortly.

  • Please indicate your certification (e.g., RN, LPN, CNA).
  • Please indicate your specialty (e.g., ER, ICU, Med-Surg, LTC).
  • Please indicate what state(s) you are interested in working in.
  • Please provide 2-3 days and times when we can contact you.
  • Max. file size: 29 MB.

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Explore addition resources from Premier Medical Staffing Services:

7 Ways to Build Patient Rapport
How to Deal with an Angry Patient
How to Rediscover Your Passion for Nursing
Is Your Healthcare Staffing Agency Nurse Owned?
Self-Care for Nurses

Last Modified: Jul 13, 2021 @ 1:36 pm by Katy Konkel