Compassion fatigue, or burnout, is incredibly common among nurses, first responders, and other professionals who work in emergency situations. The National Academy of Medicine (NAM) reports that at least 50% of caretakers across medical fields report serious symptoms of burnout.
I am Julian Castaneda, MD, Medical Director at The Judge Group. I have seen many healthcare professionals experience burnout in the decade I’ve spent as an anesthesiologist and the many years I spent in residency. I have also experienced it myself. Burnout can overtake anyone, at any time, but the pandemic has certainly increased it among my staff. The high stress, high number of patients, and chronic understaffing is hard to overcome when it affects you daily.
What is compassion fatigue/burnout?
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), compassion fatigue consists of two major components: burnout and secondary traumatic stress. Both components contribute to feelings of emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and a low sense of professional accomplishment that can negatively impact nurses and other medical staff.
When a medical professional is experiencing burnout, it can manifest in many ways. I most often see emotional exhaustion and depersonalization in nurses, manifesting itself in the way they interact with other staff and their charges. Unfortunately, I have also seen incidences when staff were so exhausted and out of it that they mistakenly gave the incorrect medication or an incorrect amount. Luckily, this doesn’t happen often and each time the error was caught immediately by another staff member – but the fact remains that burnout causes problems that can affect other staff members, patients, and the medical facility.
Four tips for nurses to combat burnout and fatigue
1. Stop and breathe
When we are caught up in stress and feeling overwhelmed, it is very common for us to quicken our breathing and cease taking deeper breaths. Therefore, it is important to take deep calming breaths to slow your heart rate and cut back on the feeling that things are spiraling beyond your control. After taking deep breaths, consider how you can continue to cut back the spiraling sensation.
2. Say “no” to new commitments
Though we often feel like we have to say yes to everything, we really don’t. In fact, knowing when to say no is critical to a healthy work-life balance. If you are already feeling overwhelmed, it is okay to say no when asked to take on additional responsibilities.
Take inventory of your current obligations and determine which ones are really causing a spiraling sensation and see if you can possibly receive help with them or hand them off to someone else entirely. You should always maintain communication with your nurse manager or other resources about how you’re feeling and what you need to be successful.
3. Set personal and social media boundaries
Losing ourselves in the social media world can contribute to feelings of inadequacy and stress. It is important to set parameters around when and how you use your devices. This goes together with setting personal boundaries as well for your free time. While we may want to lose ourselves and binge-watch the newest Netflix show all night or get just one more thing done despite being past the end of your shift at work, neither of these practices contribute to healthy boundaries.
Instead, leave work when your shift is over and take care of your other responsibilities. Be at your child’s soccer game or school play, take them for ice cream on a hot Saturday afternoon, and spend time doing the things that will make a difference in your happiness and your family’s lives. You’ll also want to maintain a healthy sleep schedule, so leave the next episode of the Netflix show for your next day off work. By doing so you will alleviate the feeling that you don’t have enough time and will feel more confident in your ability to make decisions and maintain a healthy work-life balance. You will also be far less likely to experience guilt or sadness that you’re not with your family and missing milestones in their lives.
4. Seek support
Some healthcare organizations have employee resources you can engage to help deal with the feelings of burnout. These can include apps, hotlines, and other employee resources. You can also seek support outside of work by speaking with a therapist or counselor or any other person you feel comfortable confiding in.
However, maintaining relationships with coworkers can also help. If you’re having a rough day, it is nice to be able to turn to a fellow team member on your floor and just say, “I am struggling today.” Your coworker likely won’t be able to help much, but sometimes all we really need is to just know that the way we feel is not abnormal and that other people can relate. Having somebody on your team that you can turn to when you need to can be incredibly helpful to work through any difficult shifts you may face.
How medical facilities can help combat burnout
While some medical facilities and organizations do provide resources for their medical staff, many do not. I believe it would be beneficial for medical facilities to provide resources for healthcare professionals – especially in our current talent climate. As medical facilities are struggling to hire enough staff, it is critical to maintain the staff we currently have and ensure they are healthy and capable of providing the best care.
Though I am not in a leadership position at a medical center, my time on the floor and managing staff has shown me the day-to-day realities healthcare professionals face. In my opinion, I think it would be beneficial for medical centers to provide a resource on every floor to actively walk around and ensure that the staff who are working are not displaying signs of burnout or exhaustion. From my experience, if someone were to be walking around and observing the staff, the types of issues that can arise, such as incorrect prescription dosage, could more easily be caught and avoided. Critically, this person’s position would not be to chastise or discipline anyone on the floor, but rather to be a resource for the staff to speak to, confide in, and turn to when they need resources to try and combat burnout or exhaustion they may be feeling.
Feeling on top of your game is essential to providing safe and comforting healthcare services. Feeling burnt out doesn’t do anyone any good. Make sure you are actively maintaining a healthy work-life balance and following these tips to help maintain a healthy mind and body. Burnout is not always avoidable but knowing how to pull yourself back from the negative emotions is critical to being successful as a healthcare practitioner.
Looking for a new role in healthcare? Judge Healthcare bridges the talent divide for companies and organizations across the healthcare ecosystem, providing resources and specialized roles such as vaccination and on-site medical testing staff, travel nurses and nurse practitioners, allied healthcare professionals, and more. Visit: https://www.judge.com/services/staffing-search-services/healthcare-staffing
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