5 Ways to Combat Nurse Compassion Fatigue

by Melissa Mills Melissa Mills, BSN

Specializes in Workforce development, education, and advancement. Has 24 years experience.

You're exhausted and find little joy in life. Is it just burnout, or could it be something more? Check out this article to discover ways to recognize and combat nurse compassion fatigue, so it doesn't catch you off guard.

5 Ways to Combat Nurse Compassion Fatigue

5 Ways to Combat Nurse Compassion Fatigue

You just finished your fourth 12-hour shift this week. Your body physically aches, and your back is killing you. However, what’s really bothering you is that you know the next three days off won’t be enough to stop the deep physical and emotional exhaustion you’ve been feeling over the past few weeks. No amount of hanging with friends and family, practicing yoga or meditation, or doing arts and crafts will reduce your anger and anxiety about work and, more specifically, your patients. In addition, you haven’t slept well in more than a month, and no matter what you do, you can’t seem to get rid of a killer headache. 

You wonder what happened to the nurse you used to be. You know, the one who loved going to work and was amazed when helping others, while tiring, gave you great joy and energy. Yeah, you were tired then, but spending time doing things you loved on your days off re-energized you and got you ready to go back to work and do it all over again. These days, nothing seems to help, and you’re starting to wonder if maybe nursing just isn’t for you anymore. 

Does this sound familiar? 

Could It Be Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue has long been a condition many nurses live with daily. However, with its short staffing and other issues, the post-pandemic healthcare environment has exacerbated an already severe problem for many nurses. So what does compassion fatigue really involve? 

Compassion fatigue describes the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of helping others and experiencing continued stress and trauma. It’s important to note that compassion fatigue and burnout are different. Many people feel burnout as part of compassion fatigue, but experiencing burnout doesn’t mean you’ll experience compassion fatigue too. 

Compassion fatigue comes from working in a stressful nursing unit or job, dealing with a lack of resources, or working excessive hours. It can also be triggered by physical or verbal abuse from coworkers or patients, caring for someone dying or living with severe emotional stress, or working in a trauma or high-acuity unit. 

How Might You Know if You’re Living with Compassion Fatigue?

Here are the most common signs and symptoms:

  • Drastic mood swings
  • Feeling pessimistic or cynical most or all of the time
  • Withdrawing from social connections, even ones you used to love
  • Struggling with addictions
  • Feeling symptoms of depression or anxiety
  • Difficulty concentrating or being productive
  • Difficulty falling and staying asleep
  • Physical symptoms, including:
    • Fatigue
    • Exhaustion
    • Digestive trouble
    • Changes in appetite
    • Headaches

What Can You Do About Compassion Fatigue?

You might think burnout and compassion fatigue are common symptoms of being a nurse. That’s not true. Nursing will tire you, but you can do a few things to recover. 

Find the Best Job and Shift For You

One of the best things about nursing is that you can work many different specialties or schedules. You can even choose exciting careers away from the bedside. So, while you might have to get experience working in a patient care unit on nights or doing 12-hour shifts, you don’t have to stay there.

 If your current schedule or specialty drains you, change it. It might be simply talking to your supervisor and asking for a new schedule to make the change you need. Or you may decide it’s time to look for a new job. Whatever you must do to change a work situation that drains you is worth it! 

Schedule in Self-Care

A quick scroll on Instagram might make you think you need hours and days to care for yourself. However, what it really takes is intention! 

Start small by scheduling five minutes a day to meditate, do yoga, or simply do nothing but rest. Then, slowly build up to an amount that feels good for you. Remember, the goal is to feel better and less stressed. It doesn’t matter if you’re a self-care guru. You just need to be a healthy human!

Foster Positivity at Work

It might be hard to feel positive at work these days. And your coworkers are probably feeling the same way. So, plan some fun and positivity at work! Talk to your supervisor and offer to organize a potluck, gift exchange (Christmas is right around the corner!), or an after-hours activity. A little positivity and happiness can go a long way to uplifting everyone’s mood. 

Identify a Support System

Dealing with stressful situations at work means you need a trusted person you can talk to about how you’re feeling. Keeping feelings bottled up can create an explosive situation. So instead, find a trusted coworker, friend, family member, or therapist who will listen and not judge. Schedule regular visits with them to chat about how you’re feeling.

Set Boundaries

Nurses hear and see some crazy things while working. It can be easy to start carrying other people’s burdens around, which will weigh you down. Here are two easy ways to create boundaries.

Ask yourself if what’s weighing you down is your experience or someone else’s. For example, if you’re worried about something that happened to someone else, remember that and set a boundary around it. Then, each time these thoughts come to your mind, push them aside and think about something you can control or make you smile.

 If you’re more of a visual person, get out a piece of paper and a pen. Draw a big circle in the center and start thinking about all the things that bother you. If it’s something in your control, write it inside the circle. If it’s outside of your control, write it outside the circle. Then, do an inventory of the things you wrote down, create a plan for everything inside your control, and try to let go of the things outside your control. 

How Are You Feeling?

Have you dealt with compassion fatigue? Or, maybe you’re going through it right now. Tell us how you’re feeling and what helps you when living with compassion fatigue symptoms. 


1. Compassion Fatigue: Symptoms to Look For

2. Pandemic Leads to Compassion Fatigue, Burnout for Health Care Workers

Melissa is a registered nurse with over 23 years of experience. She is a nurse leader and freelance writer who loves challenging the status quo. She loves processes, operations, and technology (aka she is a real nerd!). When she isn't doing nerdy work things, she is outside with her husband and dogs hiking or exploring local parks.

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