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Compassion fatigue, burnout, or both? What can oncology nurses do to help each other?

Caring for patients with cancer is an incredible privilege, however, it can also generate considerable stress. Oncology nurses function in a variety of roles and have many responsibilities that encompass a wide range of tasks.

Burnout gradually appears over time and traditionally occurs from conflict within the work setting, such as inadequate staffing, disagreements with managers or other colleagues, and caring for more complex patients. It can result in nurses experiencing somatic complaints such as headaches, gastrointestinal distress, and insomnia. Nurses may become more withdrawn, less empathetic, and may even leave their current position.

In contrast, compassion fatigue usually has a more acute onset and stems from relationships developed with patients and/or their families. While the burnt out nurse generally withdraws, the nurse experiencing compassion fatigue works harder to give more to their patients.

Symptoms described by nurses who have experienced compassion fatigue include inability to concentrate, isolation, fatigue along with sadness and discouragement. Both, however, leave the oncology nurse feeling depleted.

Although nurses are known as some of the most caring and giving professionals, they often find it difficult to nurture themselves. So, how can we help ourselves and our colleagues manage these concerns? Boyle (2011), identifies the following suggestions to help manage burnout and compassion fatigue:

1. Work/life balance such as exercise and attention to diet
2. Self-care strategies such as journaling, meditation, and attending to your spirituality
3. Establishing professional boundaries
4. Peer support/debriefing sessions

In our Cancer Center, we offer free exercise and yoga classes, access to exercise equipment, along with art therapy, journaling classes, an on-site meditation center, and labyrinth. In addition, our chaplain holds quarterly bereavement programs for all staff. We also have peer mentors and a quarterly Oncology Nursing Practice Council meetings where experiences and ideas are shared to help encourage and support each other.

Although November is identified as National Family Caregiver Month, it is just as important to care for ourselves so we can provide the best care to our patients.
Boyle, D. (1/31/11). Countering compassion fatigue: A requisite nursing agenda. OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing 16(1), Manuscript 2.


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