Covid-19 has placed enormous pressure on the healthcare industry. Yet one of its most sinister side effects has largely gone unnoticed: the rise of compassion fatigue and burnout among nurses and other clinicians. Here’s a basic rundown of the risks, along with a few methods to help prevent nurse burnout during this critical time.
Why It’s Important to Prevent Nurse Burnout & Compassion Fatigue
As experts have pointed out for years, burnout and compassion fatigue take a measurable toll on facilities that provide patient care. People suffering from burnout are about three times more likely to miss a shift than other workers, according to research published in PLoS One. That data also connected burnout with serious health conditions like cardiovascular diseases, chronic musculoskeletal pain and depression.
Though generally less frequently discussed than burnout, compassion fatigue is also a long-standing challenge to healthcare workers. A term describing the effects of emotional strain on those who care for those people suffering from traumatic injuries or serious illnesses, compassion fatigue has long been identified as a serious challenge for nurses and caregivers.
Even during normal times, the “impact of compassion fatigue on nurses can be profound,” write the authors of a study published in OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing. It can “be very costly personally and professionally for nurses,” they add, leading to stress-related health symptoms that ultimately cause some to leave the profession.
Covid-19 ‘Exacerbating What Was Already a Crisis of Burnout’
It’s probably needless to say, but all of these factors have only been made worse by the emergence of a global pandemic. Citing research and the professional opinion of medical professionals from Texas A&M University and Houston Methodist Hospital, the American Psychological Association warns that the Covid-19 pandemic is “exacerbating what was already a crisis of burnout for health-care providers.”
They also point out that “intensive care unit workers are facing longer shifts, increased patient deaths, lack of personal protective equipment and financial fears among other stressors” that can also contribute to burnout.
We can think of a few other stress factors, too. Many nurses and clinicians are concerned for elderly relatives and the risk of infecting their loved ones when they come home from work; some are even self-quarantining away from their families for this reason. In many states, natural disasters like wildfires and hurricanes are taking an additional emotional toll.
Put all this together, and it’s not too surprising to learn that the risk of burnout and compassion fatigue among nurses is higher than ever: “Special interventions to promote mental well-being in health care workers exposed to Covid-19 need to be immediately implemented, with women, nurses, and frontline workers requiring particular attention,” as a study published by the JAMA Network recently concluded.
7 Ways to Help Prevent Burnout & Compassion Fatigue in Nursing Teams
But how can facilities hope to prevent nurse burnout and compassion fatigue at this moment, when doing so is difficult even during normal times? If there’s some good news, it’s that even a little reassurance goes a long way. The best path forward is through enhanced communication and outreach, and adopting a few recommended best practices.
1. Adopt a ‘buddy-up’ mentality. For its part, the APA advises healthcare professionals to look for signs of burnout in their colleagues, and get in the habit of “checking in” with one another for regular talks and updates.
Dr. Kerry A. Schwanz told the APA that healthcare professionals should get a “self-care buddy” to “text each other to check in on each other’s stress levels and to report daily acts of self-care, such as taking breaks and drinking enough water to stay hydrated.”
2. Get serious about self-care. The APA report highlights the importance of helping healthcare professionals focus on self-care — something they too often neglect in their drive to help others at all costs. That mindset can be offset by adopting “the mantra of flight attendants — put your own oxygen mask on before helping others.”
Self-care should center on five important factors, as psychologist Amy M. Williams, PhD, of the Henry Ford Health System told the APA. None of these are exactly easy to accomplish, but working towards improvement can itself be a source of motivation and affirmation:
- Proper sleep
- Healthy nutrition
- Physical activity
- Social interaction
3. Be sensitive about scheduling. Be sure to allow room for shift changes and schedule alterations for nurses and other works. Talk to them about any specific needs they may have regarding caring for loved ones, or accommodating their kids’ learn-at-home requirements.
4. Offer up some space (and nourishment). It can be difficult for nurses to properly practice self-care in a hectic healthcare setting. If you can spare a section of your facility to designate as a wellness space or just a place to take a nap, you’ll be taking a big step to prevent nurse burnout. A Florence Health guide to managing compassion fatigue also recommends making room in the budget to provide meals to staff members.
5. Actively promote education, counseling and resources. It’s vital to offer education on the concept of compassion fatigue and burnout throughout each facility, and make sure that every individual is aware of the heightened risk.
For many hospitals and health centers, this is an extension of services that are likely already delivered via the Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) or the general HR department. But these resources, and the efforts to get them in front of workers, could likely benefit from additional emphasis. Make sure that every worker knows they’re available.
6. Try to ‘normalize’ the situation. All of these education and support efforts should also work toward another goal: normalizing compassion fatigue and burnout. That means accepting the fact that we’re all feeling stressed out — and that it’s okay.
As Dr. Williams told the APA, that means helping to encourage your nurses to ask for help if they think they need it. “Once they realize that feeling this way is normal for others, she says, they are more willing to talk about their struggles and to accept help.”
7. Don’t be afraid to call in expert help. “Seeking out a mentor, supervisor, experienced nurse, or a charge nurse who understands the norms and expectations of one’s unit may assist in identifying strategies that will help cope with the current work situation,” advises a compassion fatigue primer from the American Nurses Association.
Seeking Nurse Staffing or Other Healthcare Workforce Solutions?
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