Have you ever felt compassion fatigue? It’s a state of such debilitating stress that it inhibits your ability to feel normal compassion. Social workers, hospice care workers, nurses, first responders and other caregivers experience this all too often. It’s also called secondary traumatic stress or STS. It develops gradually but is a serious problem for all caregivers—even affecting adults who take care of elderly dependent relatives.
The statistics are shocking: about 48% of the total social work workforce in the United States experiences high levels of personal distress as a result of their work (Strozier & Evans, 1998 Compassion fatigue (CF) can range from 13-40 % among nurses, depending on the kind of nursing practiced, with Oncology Nurses being at the high end.
There is a lot of discussion about whether burnout is a precursor to compassion fatigue. Regardless of what precedes what, These are serious problems amongst all caretakers.
Is compassion fatigue measurable? Is it quantifiable or is it just a subjective experience? Compassion fatigue is recognizable and the measurable effects are many and varied: staff turnover, loss of self-worth, diminished productivity, poor morale, and more. Paying lip service to the need for self care among professional caretakers is not enough. We must fully understand how we can effectively support those suffering CF’s debilitating consequences.
Depression, sleep problems, and a disproportionately high rate of illness, stress-related disease, psychiatric admissions, and mortality are unfortunately very much a part of the daily landscape for today’s professional and non-professional caretakers.
At Sarasota Memorial Hospital, a committee started searching for coping strategies for compassion fatigue and nursing burnout. They looked outside the box. Jen Rheingans, PhD, RN-BC, AHN-BC, a research specialist at the hospital, said:
We know from the literature that healthcare is complex and challenging work, and that nurses who take the time to learn coping strategies are better able to adapt and sustain a career in healthcare. We’ve also seen evidence suggesting that improving resilience among healthcare providers can diminish the effects of compassion fatigue and ultimately prevent burnout…. We decided to pursue a pilot research study evaluating the effects of the Transcendental Meditation technique on compassion fatigue and resilience among nurses.
The results were impressive. Nurses who participated in the study and learned the Transcendental Meditation technique found that stress was not only dramatically less on the job, but for many, health and family relationships also improved. Analysis of results revealed statistically significant improvements in resilience and compassion fatigue, and decreases in secondary trauma. Dr. Rheingans stated:
This study contributes new knowledge for an innovative strategy to improve resilience and reduce compassion fatigue and burnout among nurses.
The quality of care and comfort that most caregivers give every day is astonishing. But the demands placed on them by a healthcare system often in thrall to the monetary goals of corporations push every caregiver to their limits physically, mentally and emotionally. Seeing the long hours that they work and the sheer volume of patients, the truly miraculous thing is that there are any medical professionals and caregivers left without compassion fatigue.
Vanessa Vidal is the National Director for the non-profit Transcendental Meditation Women’s organization in the USA.