National Nurses Week Is a Good Time to Address Compassion Fatigue

During National Nurses Week, nurses are honored and thanked for all the different and essential ways they touch lives. From a compassionate hand on a shoulder to life-saving emergency treatment, nurses are at the forefront of the nation's well being.

But nurses, caretakers of everyone, are notorious for pushing aside their own needs. If they aren't able to refresh every now and then, they can experience a fast and often personally upsetting burnout.

“A compassionate heart is a gift from the universe and should be honored as a gift,” says Phyllis Quinlan, RN-Bc, PhD, LNC, CEN, CCRN, a career coach with MFW Consultants, and author of The Delicate Balance: A Mindful Approach to Self-Care for Professional and Family Caregivers. “You need to protect it.”

Quinlan who is a presenter in this week's The Art of Nursing video series event, says caregivers in all positions are particularly vulnerable to compassion fatigue, but it's something that can be helped. Various programs during National Nurses Week are highlighting all the ways nurses can take care of themselves and encouraging nurses to put themselves at the top of their own priority list.

For nurses, putting themselves first is nearly impossible. “I hear from people when things are becoming a bit unmanageable, and they can sense it happening,” Quinlan says. “Maybe they have tried switching units and that didn't help.” Such lateral moves, she says, are often a signal that a nurse is looking for a change to get out of whatever funk he or she might be in, but such moves don't address the root of the problem. 

“It's important for nurses to know this is common among professional caregivers,” Quinlan says. “Nurses are incredibly generous and special souls. There are few on the planet who can mobilize their compassion into action. They need to reconnect with how incredible and special they are.”

One of the best ways for nurses to recognize that they might be approaching burnout is to listen – to themselves and to those who are close to them. “Nurses will go along and think everything is going fine and then people start to say, 'Is everything okay?'” says Quinlan. “They might start to get hints from their personal or professional inner circle.”

But most nurses brush off concern. “A nurse will say, 'No, I'm fine. What can I do for you?'” says Quinlan. But if any nurse feels an inner sense that something is just off, he or she must honor that. They can do that by overcoming their reluctance to accept that there might be a problem, says Quinlan, and then accepting help to fix it.

“Your compassionate well can go dry if you don't replenish it,” says Quinlan. To reconnect with the joy of nursing, you can do several things. Time off is always a good bet. Even if you can't go on vacation, a day devoted to something you love – whether that's an afternoon of back-to-back movies or a long bike ride – will give you welcome space, a little freedom, and a new perspective.

Quinlan recommends trying to find time to just be still, despite knowing how very difficult that is for nurses who are always in motion. “You want to find still time for self reflection and introspection,” she says. “It should be quiet and benevolent.” With enough quality quiet time, your resilience will grow stronger.

“Nurses are indispensable, but not indestructible,” says Quinlan. “Be as gentle and as kind with yourself as you would with a patient.”  

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