Compassion Fatigue and Burnout in Nurses Treating COVID-19 – Are They the Same Thing?

Compassion Fatigue and Burnout in Nurses Treating COVID-19
Cross Country Healthcare
June 22, 2020 04:54 AM (GMT-05:00)

Clinical leadership from both Cross Country Healthcare and Florida Atlantic University’s (FAU) Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing recently got together to present a webinar entitled, “COVID & Compassion Fatigue.” The event was cohosted by Cross Country Healthcare’s Chief Clinical Officer, Hank Drummond, and Florida Atlantic University (FAU) Dean of Nursing, Safiya George, PhD, FAANP. Additional panelists included FAU’s Dean of Nursing, Natalie Bermudez, PhD, RN, PCCN-K; Assistant Professor, Beth King, RN, PhD, PMHCNS-BC; Professor and Associate Dean for Academic Programs, Kay Edwards, DrPH, FNP-BC, FAAN; and Associate Dean of Nursing and Research Scholarships, Pat Liehr, PhD, RN. The panel discussed how chronic exposure to COVID-19 patients could cause nurses to experience compassion fatigue or related conditions and ways to address them. One of the conditions related to compassion fatigue which the panelists discussed was burnout.

The Connection Between Nurse Burnout and Compassion Fatigue During COVID-19

In our previous article, we discussed how nurses and other healthcare providers with chronic exposure to patients battling COVID-19 are at increased risk of developing compassion fatigue and related conditions, including PTSD. When nurses or their colleagues begin to recognize unusual stress-related symptoms in themselves and others, it isn’t always clear what the culprit could be. In some cases, while many of the symptoms appear similar, a nurse may be suffering not from compassion fatigue, but from burnout. While the two concepts are often used interchangeably, compassion fatigue and burnout have some striking differences, and it is important to recognize them in order for treatment to be successful.

Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue

  • Sudden onset
  • Emotional and physical exhaustion
  • Apathy
  • Helplessness
  • Desensitization to patients and families
  • Depersonalization

Symptoms of Burnout

  • Develops over time
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Hopelessness
  • Cynicism

Compassion Fatigue Appears Suddenly, Burnout Develops Over Time

One major difference between compassion fatigue and burnout that may help with a positive identification is the speed at which each develops. When it comes to compassion fatigue, nurses usually experience a sudden onset of symptoms that include emotional and physical exhaustion and feelings of helplessness. Additionally, they are often preoccupied with absorbing the physical and emotional trauma of their patients. Although nurses may be used to treating patients who are sick and dying, if they suddenly find themselves caring for dozens or even hundreds of severely ill COVID-19 patients within a relatively short time frame, even the most mentally fit may quickly become overwhelmed with these feelings.

Nurses who are experiencing burnout, on the other hand, will have symptoms that develop gradually over weeks and months. They may be physically and mentally exhausted by a number of issues, both at work and at home. Additionally, while burnout is common in healthcare providers, it can affect workers in many different professions, as it is often related to increased workloads or other workplace stressors, as opposed to the trauma that triggers compassion fatigue. Combatting burnout entails many of the same strategies as treating compassion fatigue, including developing a comprehensive self-care routine, engaging in healthy activities and seeking support.

Don’t Miss Our Next Webinar in this Series: Caring for Self: Nurturing Wholeness and Well-Being

Be sure to join us for our next webinar in this ongoing series: Caring for Self: Nurturing Wholeness and Well-Being, scheduled for June 18 at 2:00 p.m. ET. Topics will include nurturing wholeness and well-being, the impact of uncertainty on well-being, riding the “coronacoaster” of uncertainty, and the impact of uncertainty on sleep. Please pre-register here if you would like to listen in.

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