Compassion Fatigue

This Article defines compassion fatigue, discusses associated symptoms and offers interventions.

Updated:   Published

Compassion Fatigue

Have you ever held a position as a nurse or nurse practitioner where you see the same type of patient day in and day out?  Do you work with oncology patients?  Hospice patients? Emergency room patients? Have you found yourself on any given day completely disconnected from your patients and the revolving door of symptoms, side effects, and complaints?

I have, and I'm sure many of you reading this have as well.  What you're experiencing may be one of the many symptoms associated with compassion fatigue. 

There are many reasons we become nurses...compassion, advancement, career opportunities, make a difference, just to name a few.  Whatever the reason, I believe we all have some level of compassion going into nursing.  With that said, we have all experienced fatigue at some point in time as well. Physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, or a combination of those.  Fatigue, as a noun, is simply a condition that is brought on by overexposure or repetitive series of events.

FACT: When fatigue arises because of our drive for compassion, we develop compassion fatigue. 

Compassion fatigue can be defined as "a combination of physical, emotional, and spiritual depletion associated with caring for patients in significant emotional pain and physical distress.”  Compassion fatigue can be found in several different areas of nursing, but the highest rates are found working in oncology, emergency, intensive care units, pediatric units, and hospice care. This term is very real and can sneak up on us without even realizing it.   

Compassion fatigue has undoubtedly increased over the past couple of years with the introduction of the COVID-19 pandemic.  There are many different symptoms that can be associated with compassion fatigue.  Some may experience only a few, but often we experience several. Symptoms can arise as work-related, physical, and/or emotional. 


Work Related

  • Dreading or avoiding certain patients
  • Ability to empathize is reduced
  • Lack of joy


  • Headaches
  • Diarrhea, constipation, upset stomach
  • Inability to sleep, trouble staying asleep, too much sleep
  • Fatigue
  • Chest pains, palpitations, increased heart rate


  • Mood swings
  • Feelings of restlessness
  • Easily irritated
  • Increased anxiety
  • Start/increase substance use/abuse (nicotine, alcohol, illicit drugs
  • Poor concentration and/or judgment

Steps to Intervention

One of the first steps to intervention is to be aware that compassion fatigue exists and recognize you could be dealing with it.  The second step is to act.  This could be as simple as integrating something into your daily routine that can help replenish the workday.  This comes back to self-care, which is often discussed and talked about but never really done.  You must be honest with yourself and willing to make a change.  Change does not happen overnight, but it can happen by starting with small little initiatives and committing to them.  Many small little changes can go a long way in preserving one's health.

  • Adequate hydration
  • Proper nutrition
  • Exercise
  • Meditation
  • Relaxing, quiet, comfortable setting
  • Journaling

You may require additional support by talking about your feelings and emotions.  Those you talk to can help hold you accountable for self-care and may even join you in the effort.  There are different avenues for this as well.

  • Family members
  • Friends
  • Pastoral Care (hospital/church)
  • Counseling (many hospitals have available services)

Compassion fatigue is something about which we should be knowledgeable.  It is pounded into our hearts and soul from the beginning of our nursing journey to be knowledgeable and compassionate toward the patients we serve.  This goes without saying, but we, as the provider, are a large piece of the puzzle.  The impact compassion fatigue has on nurses can be minor or profound.  It can be a true occupational hazard in our daily lives and for those seeking our help.  We must be aware of ourselves and not have a mindset of "it just comes with the territory.”  Take what you learned in school and develop a plan of care for yourself.  Remember, you are a necessary piece of the puzzle in patient care.  Recognizing and developing a plan of care for yourself will only help increase your ability to care for others.


Compassion Fatigue: A Nurse's Primer

Healthcare Professionals and Compassion Fatigue

Specializes in Oncology.

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tnbutterfly - Mary, BSN, RN

152 Articles; 5,918 Posts

Specializes in Peds, Med-Surg, Disaster Nsg, Parish Nsg.

Thank you for the article.  Compassion fatigue is real.  I changed jobs due to compassion fatigue.