Coping With Compassion Fatigue as a Travel Nurse
Compassion is a core characteristic of every great healthcare professional. To truly care for patients means to empathize with them and understand how they feel in their time of need. Unfortunately, compassion — while an essential trait — takes its toll. Bearing the weight of daily grief, guilt, sadness, and other draining emotions can eventually leave even the best nurses feeling down. It’s a phenomenon called “compassion fatigue,” and it happens more often than most nurses realize.
What is compassion fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is exactly what it sounds like — exhaustion or strain due to extending compassion to distressed patients. It’s what happens when a nurse gives everything they have to the job, leaving little left to care for themselves. Nurses may begin to feel numb to the pain their patients (and they themselves) are experiencing.
There’s no question as to why nurses suffer from compassion fatigue so frequently. Nurses are hyper invested in their patients. They’re the ones visiting their bedsides day and night, holding their hands through bad news, and advocating for their needs. This emotional investment in patients — along with prolonged exposure to their challenges — can take a toll over time.
For travel nurses, especially, compassion fatigue can hit hard because it’s an added emotional drain to the overall stress of travel nursing. They’re investing in their patients while adapting to a new healthcare facility, region, and lifestyle. They’re also away from their support system, meaning they don’t have as many outlets for emotional release as they would back home.
Don’t ignore the signs of compassion fatigue
Compassion fatigue can occur quickly and take travel nurses by surprise. It’s important that nurses understand the signs of compassion fatigue so they notice when it might be impacting them. Compassion fatigue may cause symptoms such as:
- Depressive feelings
- Loss of self-worth or pride in one’s accomplishments
- Feelings of being on edge
- Lack of empathy toward others
- Sleep disturbances
- Impairment of cognitive abilities and judgment
- Behavioral or mood changes
Many of these signs mimic the symptoms of burnout and clinical depression — and they’re often interrelated. Compassion fatigue can exacerbate burnout, and vice versa.
Nurses should check in with themselves regularly to ensure their mental health isn’t suffering in response to their jobs. If signs of compassion fatigue begin to appear, nurses should take action immediately to begin the recovery process.
Take time for self-care
When nurses begin to experience the early warning signs compassion fatigue (and ideally before), it’s time to start extending more compassion internally. Coping with compassion fatigue will look different for everyone, but the main goals are to practice self-care, develop good boundaries, and seek professional help when needed.
Travel nurses, in particular, should find ways to check in with their support systems often. Set up recurring video calls with loved ones and find a therapist who supports telehealth to ensure continuous support while on assignment. Nurses should reach out to coworkers for support as well. It might also help to develop self-care hobbies that can be brought on the road, such as yoga or journaling.
Another key to battling compassion fatigue is finding ways to set emotional boundaries at work. Although nurses need to extend empathy and compassion to their patients, they shouldn’t necessarily take on the feelings and burdens of those patients. Mindfulness is one way nurses can learn to self-regulate to stay calm and manage their emotions during stressful situations at work. After all, the only way nurses can take care of their patients is by taking care of themselves first.