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ADVANCE Perspective: Nurses

Compassion Fatigue: Does the Shoe Fit?

Published March 20, 2013 10:19 AM by Guest Blogger
By Diane M. Goodman, APRN, BC, MSN-C, CCRN. CNRN

In the realm of nursing, we often focus on what is "trendy" in healthcare terminology. The word multidisciplinary has been upgraded to interdisciplinary, patient education has morphed into principles of "teach-back," and being nasty to your co-workers has coalesced into a syndrome called "horizontal violence" in the workplace. Being trendy is appropriate and can earn the respect of your peers by making you appear to be well-read and knowledgeable. Yet recently, in discussing a few of my experiences with a colleague, I learned that being original and/or trendy does not preclude one from being clueless. That was the day I learned about the concept of "compassion fatigue."

Do the bulk of our nursing peers know what compassion fatigue is? I was totally ignorant of the concept until one of my colleagues enlightened me. I thought my own term "symptom fatigue" (while original but definitely not trendy) might fit the apathy described to me by patients and caregivers in recent months. Patients who have been frequently readmitted verbalized they are "tired" of dealing with their symptoms, and they believe providers have mirrored this dwindling interest to the point of possibly tuning them out.  Little did I know there was already an expression (and syndrome) that has been identified to describe this behavior. The concept is called compassion fatigue, and if the shoe fits, we need to learn when and how to recognize it, both in our own lives, and potentially those of our patients.

Compassion fatigue was defined and recognized in nurses beginning in the 1950s. It is a condition common to those working in a caregiver capacity, and is characterized by a decrease in the ability to demonstrate compassion over time. The condition has also been referred to as "burnout" and STS (secondary traumatic stress) or secondary traumatic stress disorder. Those suffering from compassion fatigue may develop a host of negative feelings. This could include self doubt, persistent physiological symptoms of stress, and the inability to work productively or display patience for others (hello, horizontal violence in the workplace!).

If this concept sounds like an area you need to explore, there are web sites and resources available for further information, including the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project (, or Healthy Caregiving LLC ( In the meantime, I will apply myself to stifling urges to smack my annoying peers (just joking!), take something for those profuse stress-related headaches, snack on a few potentially unhealthy foods, and prepare myself to focus intently on the distress of others while ignoring my own.

After all, it's trendy (although not original) to be too busy for self-care, or to compete over who owns the longer "to do" list. To seek assistance and support would reveal that you are original, professionally informed, and no longer clueless.


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