Have you ever felt like you just have nothing left to give your patients? Does a day at work feel like you’re scraping the bottom of your emotional well?

Lots of nurses have hit the proverbial emotional wall—sometimes called compassion fatigue—at some point in their careers. A nurse’s work day involves meeting the needs of others at a level that is high, constant, and often emotionally draining. If there’s nothing to replenish the physical and emotional resource, a nurse can quickly become less productive, resentful, and not only unhappy with her nursing role, but the entire nursing profession.

Even if compassion fatigue is common, it isn’t something you can just hope will pass. If you feel like your job is taking everything out of you, that’s something to take very seriously because it affects both the patients you care for and all your other relationships.

So, how can nurses deal with or even avoid compassion fatigue? Most experts says one of the biggest steps is to watch for the warning signs, recognize if you have any of them, or respect when a colleague recognizes you’re struggling. If you can do that, you can then begin to heal.

The signs of compassion fatigue are often mixed up with the normal stress felt in a typical nurse’s day, but it’s usually more pervasive. If compassion fatigue is starting to take hold, you might feel the physical signs, such as headaches or sleep problems, or the emotional signs, such as anxiety or fluctuating moods. Lots of nurses who feel the ramifications of compassion fatigue also start showing signs of it on the job, so that often colleagues notice the signs even before the nurse admits to herself that something’s wrong. Maybe you are consistently coming in late or finding ways to get out early. Or, maybe you are just noticing the dread creeping in as you get ready for work.

Anyone can experience tough times and feel one or all of these signs during the course of their careers. But if you notice this is becoming prolonged—for example, your boss has to talk to you about your tardiness, your family complains about your short fuse, or a patient’s family mentions your seeming lack of empathy for their situation—then it’s time to get help.

Compassion fatigue doesn’t just go away with a week off. You need to ask for help and be willing to devote some time to taking care of yourself. Seek out professional mental health counseling so you can vent your feelings without repercussions. Ask your supervisor or a close mentor for advice or for a temporary placement in a less stressful unit. At home, ask family or friends for a little extra support and opt out of the majority of your commitments, at least for a while. Remember, if you fell ill and couldn’t do these things, you wouldn’t. Compassion fatigue can take such a toll, that if you don’t address it, you risk putting your own health in serious danger.

If you think compassion fatigue rings a bell with your feelings, get help and take care of yourself. Every nurse knows this to be true: you can’t help other people until you help yourself.

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil
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