Compassion fatigue is defined as a loss of compassion and caring over time. It is a condition that is hallmarked by emotional, physical and spiritual exhaustion that occurs from caring for and internalizing the suffering of others. Compassion fatigue is also referred to as secondary post-traumatic stress disorder. Nurses have a propensity to carry on the burdens and problems of others - their patients, coworkers, families, and friends which may leave them exhausted and feeling empty. (I recommend reading Bertice Berry's Blog, especially Day 145: Seeing Miracles)
Moral distress is another term often used related to burn out, however often there is an ethical component or dilemma associated. Nurses frequently find themselves in the middle of conflicts involving patient care issues, especially related to end-of-life or futility of care. This produces a great deal of stress for the nurse whom often has no outlet.
We have all seen it - burned out coworkers call out more, are late to work, have no interest in most of what they do, chronic fatigue, decreased productivity, high turnover, workplace injuries, reduced satisfaction in work and home, and even more patient complaints. Not to mention patient safety events; if our head is not in the game so to speak how can we be sure we are not going to make a serious error or failure to rescue or prevent harm to a patient.
There are many reasons that nurses become burned out with their jobs. High patient acuity, staffing issues, conflicting values and expectations for time between work and other life responsibilities and difficult or devastating patient situations.We talk about it. We say, "Oh, I'm so burned out, I just don't care anymore." Yet we do little to nothing about it. At work we barely support each other; often because we are so busy ourselves and consumed with our own tasks and crises. Helping and supporting each other through difficult situations and even the everyday ones has to be a priority. It is wearing us out and creating an undercurrent of distress and hostility and resentment. Having formal systems in place to help us deal with difficult emotions is important not only for the staff member involved but all other staff, and more importantly for the patient.
At home we do even less. We set no priorities of care for ourselves. Do not allow ourselves to grieve a loss at work or at home. We do not give ourselves permission to really care for ourselves in a healthy way - sleep and eat well, exercise, rest and relax, read a good book, play and so on.
I have posted some very good resources on moral distress, compassion fatigue and burn out. I strongly encourage you to read them and develop resources in your workplace to combat this insidious foe to our job satisfaction and personal happiness.
Addressing Moral Distress: An Important Step toward a Healthy Work Environment
Six Ways to Deal With Compassion Fatigue and Burnout, Kendra Mims, ENA Connection (Mar 2012)