Healthcare professionals (HCPs) are often hailed as heroes because they dedicate their lives to caring for the sick and injured, providing comfort, and saving lives. However, the demands of this noble profession can sometimes take an immense toll on the emotional and mental well-being of those who provide care resulting in conditions like burnout or compassion fatigue, which we will be highlighting in this blog.
Healthcare workers are at a high risk for compassion fatigue because they are constantly exposed to the pain and suffering of others. They may see patients who are dying, injured, or in pain. They may also hear about the trauma that patients have experienced. This exposure to trauma can take a toll on the emotional well-being of healthcare workers. In this blog, we’ll delve into what compassion fatigue is, its causes, symptoms, and most importantly, how it can be managed and prevented.
What is Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is a state of emotional, physical, and psychological exhaustion that results from prolonged exposure to the suffering and trauma of patients. It’s often referred to as the “cost of caring” and can be particularly debilitating for healthcare workers who constantly witness pain, illness, and death. While it shares similarities with burnout, which is caused from having too much work, compassion fatigue is distinct in that it specifically relates to the emotional labor of caring for others.
Compassion fatigue develops in HCPs over time, as they are exposed to different forms of patient trauma. It keeps building slowly due to repeated trauma exposure, and if left unmanaged, it can cause HCPs to not care about themselves or others in their life due to the overuse of their compassion skills and reserves. The types of trauma HCPs are exposed to can be broken down into these three categories:
- Primary Trauma: This type of exposure happens when HCPs see or provide treatment to people who have experienced horrific events or if their work puts them directly in the path of danger. Examples include professionals who work as emergency medical personnel, disaster responders or medicine personnel.
- Secondary Trauma: Secondary trauma exposure occurs when HCPs are subjected to traumatic events experienced by others as a result of their work, such as providing care to people who have sustained emotional or physical injuries.
- Vicarious Trauma: This type of trauma exposure happens when HCPs repeatedly hear stories about the traumatic things that happen to other people.
Aside from exposure to various forms of trauma, HCPs can experience compassion fatigue as a result of others factors as well. First, a lack of control due to limited resources or systemic issues can at times cause HCPs to feel helpless and unable to provide the level of care they desire. Second, due to the nature of their jobs, HCPs often place a great deal of emotional investment in their patients, and this investment can lead to emotional exhaustion and cause them to feel compassion fatigue. Last, HCPs often have to work long hours with a high workload, and that type of fast-paced environment can contribute to stress which helps make them more susceptible to compassion fatigue.
Common Compassion Fatigue Symptoms
Compassion fatigue can manifest in various forms, and its symptoms may vary from person to person. Some common signs of compassion fatigue include:
- Physical Symptoms: Persistent fatigue, headaches, insomnia or low-quality sleep, changes in appetite, dizziness, and a weakened immune system.
- Emotional Symptoms: Mood swings, feelings of detachment, sadness, irritability, anxiety, emotional numbness, an increase in self-blame, and a decreased sense of personal and professional accomplishment.
- Behavioral Symptoms: Increased absenteeism, withdrawal from social activities, decreased productivity, feelings of isolation, and compulsive behavior.
- Cognitive Symptoms: Difficulty concentrating, memory problems, a pervasive sense of hopelessness, and change in worldview or spirituality.
Managing and Preventing Compassion Fatigue
Many HCPs experience some form of compassion fatigue during their careers, so it is important to learn prevention strategies that can help them cope. By taking steps to prevent compassion fatigue, healthcare professionals can better protect their own mental and emotional health and continue to provide compassionate care to their patients. These are some strategies to consider:
- Self-Care: HCPs should prioritize self-care. This includes getting enough sleep, regularly exercising, eating a balanced and nutritious diet, and engaging in activities that provide relaxation and enjoyment.
- Seeking Support: Talking to colleagues or supervisors who may also be experiencing similar challenges can be immensely helpful for HCPs.
- Developing Coping Strategies: Learning mindfulness techniques and resilience-building strategies, like yoga, meditation or journaling, can help HCPs equip their minds to meet the challenges of stress and maintain emotional well-being.
- Seeking Therapy: Talk therapy with a mental health professional can lighten the psychological load and provide essential feedback to help cope with the emotional and mental challenges HCPs face.
- Setting Boundaries: It’s important to set professional boundaries so that HCPs can maintain a healthy work-life balance and prevent emotional exhaustion. Knowing when to say no or seek assistance is crucial.
How Maxim Staffing Helps HCPs Combat Compassion Fatigue
In addition to the strategies listed above, Maxim Staffing HCPs have access to the following resources that can help them cope with compassion fatigue or other mental health challenges:
- Maxim Staffing offers all our HCPs 50% off their first month of BetterHelp through Perkspot. BetterHelp is a mental health platform that provides online access to mental health services like talk or group therapy.
- HCPs can also get help through Maxim Staffing’s company-paid Employee Assistance Program (EAP). This program provides a licensed professional counselor to listen and help define their problems, assess the type of help needed, and provide the required service or make an appropriate and cost-effective referral.
- Maxim Staffing also has extensive experience in placing HCPs in a wide variety of settings, meaning that those who are looking for new opportunities outside of the hospital, such as in schools and public health institutions, can work with their recruiters to find a placement that can help them tackle compassion fatigue.