Compassion Fatigue and Burnout: Leadership Makes A Difference and Awareness is Key

Posted on February 28th, 2013 by Vidette Todaro-Franceschi

Many say that compassion fatigue is a consequence of caring for those who are suffering and that nurses and other professionals engaged in health care are likely to develop it at some point or another.  My experience with John Doe (in the digital story on my home page) is an example of how swiftly and easily compassion fatigue can evolve.  Knowing what we do (or think we do!) today, might those feelings of compassion fatigue been prevented if I had not been assigned to care for John over the course of several days?  I am not sure.

I do think that if I had been practicing mindful awareness as I went to work, I would have been able to pick up cues that compassion fatigue was developing; I would have been able to tend to myself and perhaps through journaling or meditation, averted the incident where I fell apart all together. In any case, I know that the way my charge nurse acknowledged my feelings and actually showed me (and my co-workers) through her actions, compassionate caring and understanding, helped me to deal with it and to heal.  Had she not acknowledged my suffering, I would have suffered more and over time my wounds might have festered-resulting in more fatigue and perhaps eventual burnout.

Good leadership is vitally important to organizational wellness and professional quality of life and it hinges on compassionate caring.  When a leader acts with compassion it is transformational in that it enhances the well-being of the people who work in the organization, as well as the quality of the work they do.  Conversely, when a leader does not acknowledge the humanness of staff and their potential suffering, wounds are allowed (and sometimes actually encouraged) to fester.  Staff will feel undervalued and without a doubt it will manifest in various negative ways such as, lateness, absenteeism, poor morale, incivility, decreased productivity, and in the case of patient care, well, overall quality of care will unquestionably be affected.

I am a big fan of the organizational behavior scholar Peter Frost whose work emphasized the importance of compassion in organizations and how bringing the importance of compassion into awareness and changing organizational culture can yield amazing results.  One of his books, Toxic Emotions at Work provides insight as to how leaders can handle toxicity in the workplace and also how some leaders promote toxicity in the workplace.  I cite him often.

Ultimately, in order to avert or heal from compassion fatigue and/or burnout, the first step is to acknowledge there is a problem, thus, being mindfully aware of how we are going about our work is important for us individually and collectively. When compassionate leaders acknowledge that suffering exists in every workplace and that we are all human, they foster a community of caring that is palpable. In nursing that equates with quality caring for all.

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