Caring for people experiencing pain and suffering day in and day out can be trying for nurses and other healthcare professionals. Especially when they feel like the work is never done. That feeling is called compassion fatigue and at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, they've developed a program to help.
Some might equate compassion fatigue with burnout, but it is more complex than that, said Pat Potter, director of research and compassion fatigue program developer at Barnes-Jewish.
According to Potter, professional burnout does play a role in compassion fatigue but only when combined with the stress a caregiver feels at repeatedly witnessing the pain of others.
"For example, an oncology nurse who sees a person come back week after week for chemotherapy and sees their condition progressively worsen," said Potter. "That takes a toll on them."
"I would probably make a case that most caregivers experience [compassion fatigue]," said Cathy Powers.
A clinical nurse specialist, Powers now is a compassion fatigue trainer at Barnes-Jewish. "You may not know when it is occurring that that's indeed what you're experiencing. But it's just this feeling that I don't have anymore to give. Or I come back day after day and I don't see conditions improve...Even work kind of interfering with your sleep or finding yourself increasingly irritable would be signs of compassion fatigue."
As a former bedside nurse, Powers has experienced compassion fatigue herself.
"At that time, you just thought it was part of the job. And you kind of just sucked it up and hoped it was better the next day," said Powers. "But what I would notice in co-workers is many would leave...it became kind of frightening that you couldn't practice for a lifetime because eventually the work was going to be too much for you."
For the past three years, Barnes-Jewish has offered a compassion fatigue training program to its employees. Over a period of eight hours, instructors like Powers teach nurses and other caregivers resiliency skills to help prevent and alleviate compassion fatigue.
As the director of patient experience at Barnes-Jewish, Sean Rodriguez sees the training program as a tool to ensure patients are experiencing the best possible care.
"Team members who are stressed, who are burnt out, who are compassion fatigued, will not be able to provide the most adequate care possible," said Rodriguez. "This is about having compassion for our team members and making sure that we are helping them help themselves."
During the training, caregivers are taught five ways they can combat compassion fatigue. They are:
- Self-Regulation: Discovering techniques to control your nervous system so that you can relax your body during stressful situations.
- Intentionality: Reflecting back on why you became a caregiver. What Powers called "your personal creed."
- Professional Maturation: Remembering the ways you contribute and the good you do.
- Connection: Finding other caregivers you can talk to.
- Self-Care: Leaving work concerns at work and taking care of yourself.
"Some of our work...is based on a quote by Victor Frankel that says 'that which gives light must endure burning,' " said Powers. "And what we're trying to teach our caregivers to do is to refuel themselves by taking care of themselves...rather than burning themselves up so that they feel like they cannot possibly come back tomorrow."