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5 strategies to help cope with compassion fatigue


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“I get so attached to my patients that I just can’t get them out of my head when I go home.”

“Every week I find myself getting distraught over a new favorite patient who isn’t doing well.”

Is this you? As a nurse, you witness the fear, pain and suffering of others every day. But when you get too immersed in the lives and trials of your patients, you can become a victim of “compassion fatigue.” Compassion fatigue is also thought of as “secondary post-traumatic stress.” And once it sets in, you can lose mental energy and get burned out.

How do you know if you’re suffering from compassion fatigue?

• Mistakes go up and job performance goes down.
• You can’t stop thinking about your job or the problems of your patients.
• You have trouble sleeping.
• You have a general feeling of weariness.
• You don’t feel like doing anything—you feel blah.
• You feel less satisfied, less energetic and less efficient.

If you’re unsure whether you suffer from compassion fatigue, it’s time to become more self-aware. Watch how you are reacting to your patients and colleagues…and how they are reacting to you. Are you more sensitive than usual? Are your colleagues getting frustrated with you? Are your patients becoming too clingy? Too familiar? When you recognize how others perceive you and the affect you have on others, you can identify the above symptoms of burnout early.

Use these strategies to cope with job stress and to combat compassion fatigue:

Exercise. You may feel like you just don’t have time to exercise. The physical and mental benefits of exercise will make you more productive and are worth every minute. [Editor’s note: Scrubs Magazine has a great series of articles for quick workouts you can do while on the job].

Maintain a personal life, even if you don’t feel like it. When you’re stressed, you may tend to eliminate the very things that will revitalize you—like family dinners, eating lunch out, prayer, meditation, or time with friends. Spend time with supportive people.

Have a sense of humor. People in stressful jobs, such as psychiatric nurses, may often have a wicked sense of humor—but it’s still a sense of humor. When people who work with them recognize they’re joking around less often, it’s a sign that it’s time for a break.

Set limits between work and home activities. Easier said than done, I know. Don’t play nurse or therapist in personal relationships.

Broaden your network. Get involved in professional or social organizations where like-minded people meet and discuss events and mutual problems.

Editor’s note: Some of the symptoms that included in this article could be indicators for depression. Please see a mental health professional if you believe you are clinically depressed. Also, it’s okay to show emotion and share it with families and patients, but try your hardest to not get attached to patients too frequently. Sure, there will always be that special patient that touches your heart, but if you’re suffering from compassion fatigue, it is time to reevaluate your role as a professional in these particular peoples’ lives for your own sanity.

Compassion Fatigue Checklist

Additional resources to download:

Fletcher Compassion Fatigue Scoring Sheet (PDF)

Fletcher Compassion Fatigue Assessment (PDF)

Susan Fletcher, PhD
Susan Fletcher, PhD, is a psychologist, an author and a speaker who specializes in helping individuals, professionals and organizations apply strategies for fast improvement. Her Smart Zone™ strategies provide ways to be a top performer at work and at home. To learn more about how to be in the Smart Zone, please visit Susan’s Website at, or contact her at (972) 612-1188 or by email at

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