The R3 Continuum Playbook: Compassion Fatigue in the Healthcare Industry
As we approach two years into a pandemic, compassion fatigue–prioritizing the needs of others over self-care–is a particular difficulty with workers in healthcare. Jeff Gorter, Vice President of Clinical Crisis Response at R3 Continuum, helps distinguish compassion fatigue from burnout, the unique impact on healthcare workers, and how to instead nurture “compassion satisfaction.” The R3 Continuum Playbook is presented by R3 Continuum and is produced by the Minneapolis-St.Paul Studio of Business RadioX®. R3 Continuum is the underwriter of Workplace MVP, the show which celebrates heroes in the workplace.
Intro: [00:00:01] Broadcasting from the Business RadioX Studios, here is your R3 Continuum Playbook. Brought to you by Workplace MVP sponsor, R3 Continuum, a global leader in workplace behavioral health, crisis, and security solutions.
Jeff Gorter: [00:00:16] Hi, my name is Jeff Gorter, Vice President of Crisis Response Clinical Services at R3 Continuum. Today, I’d like to discuss compassion fatigue, specifically within the healthcare industry. As healthcare workers have dealt with an excessive exponential amount of trauma, suffering, and stress throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s no surprise that many are experiencing what is known as compassion fatigue. Caring for the caregivers has never been more important.
Jeff Gorter: [00:00:49] Now, compassion fatigue has been characterized as an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped, this, as defined by Charles Figley, one of the pioneers in the field. It’s often a result of prioritizing the needs of others over self-care.
Jeff Gorter: [00:01:10] For doctors, nurses, surgeons, and other healthcare workers, compassion is essential to their occupation. Without compassion, how can these workers be expected to properly care for their patients if they can’t empathize with them? But this same empathy, the ability to connect and identify with our patients, can also create an unexpected vulnerability in the healthcare worker if we are not intentionally mindful about our own self-care.
Jeff Gorter: [00:01:44] Now, while burnout is often equated or confused with compassion fatigue, they are actually two different conditions. Burnout is more severe and comes from living in prolonged periods of unrelenting stress that’s gone unaddressed or unattended. But compassion fatigue is almost always the precursor to burnout, the thing that presages it.
Jeff Gorter: [00:02:11] So, compassion fatigue can be defined as the physical, emotional, and spiritual result of chronic self-sacrifice and/or of prolonged exposure to difficult, painful situations that render a person unable to nurture, care for, or to empathize with another’s suffering. This is from Dr. Chelsia Harris, the Executive Director at Lipscomb University’s School of Nursing.
Jeff Gorter: [00:02:41] So, healthcare workers are not only operating on elevated levels of stress for long periods of time, they are also being continuously exposed to death, end-of-life situations, trauma, suffering. While this is no surprise, in fact, many healthcare workers entered the profession to impact exactly those issues, this characteristic occupational hazard, if you will, has become exponentially exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is extremely problematic, as compassion fatigue that’s left unaddressed can be detrimental to healthcare workers and healthcare systems impeding their effectiveness. If workers are trying to care for others while operating on empty, it’s unlikely that they can perform at the needed capacity necessary for successful completion of their occupation, their duties.
Jeff Gorter: [00:03:44] Compassion fatigue, the cost of caring, can lead to inadequate performance, severe behavioral health consequences for the healthcare worker, and perhaps even attrition and loss of the workforce, if healthcare workers choose to leave their professions because of it. Whether you’re a COVID-19 unit nurse who was working 12-hour shifts or a surgical tech who’s struggling to make ends meet, you are apt to be experiencing distress right now and are potentially at risk for developing behavioral health concerns. You are vital to the operation of hospitals and healthcare settings, patient care, or other systems.
Jeff Gorter: [00:04:32] But I want to be clear. Compassion fatigue is not inevitable, nor is it the only path. I’m going to repeat that. Compassion fatigue is not inevitable, nor is it the only path. Experienced and savvy healthcare workers have long realized that purposefully maintaining their compassion satisfaction is the best defense against compassion fatigue.
Jeff Gorter: [00:04:56] Compassion satisfaction is the pleasure, the emotional reward, and the sense of fulfillment that comes from helping others. Most healthcare workers were drawn to the field because of a natural empathy to those in distress and a strong desire to alleviate that distress as best they can. Veteran healthcare workers who have sustained themselves over a full career report that compassion satisfaction is often related to several factors, and [inaudible] review them right now.
Jeff Gorter: [00:05:28] First, the simple act of providing care and alleviating distress as we talked earlier is in and of itself rewarding. Next, they also find being part of a larger system, a healthcare system designed for care. A system that serves the greater community is a positive experience itself and is also affirming.
Jeff Gorter: [00:05:58] Next, working with like-minded colleagues who are committed to care, who are mission-driven, and know what it’s like to be in frontline healthcare situations, is also sustaining. Many healthcare workers report the opportunity to express their core beliefs about themselves, the things that they feel are essential values that they live their lives by to do that in a healthcare setting. Things like, for example, purpose and faith and service to others, these core beliefs are also positive and fulfilling.
Jeff Gorter: [00:06:38] And, finally, altruism, that belief and satisfaction that comes from doing something worthwhile, something that makes a difference in the lives of others or their community is again empowering and sustaining. These factors help us to think about the challenge of compassion satisfaction in a healthy way.
Jeff Gorter: [00:06:38] Now, I’d also like to suggest some things we can do, some actions we can take that have been proven to be helpful in maintaining compassion satisfaction as other healthcare workers have reported. First, let’s start with the basics. Make sure you are attending to food, fluid, sleep as best you can, making sure you’re eating in a healthy, balanced way, making sure you’re staying hydrated during the course of a shift, and maintaining a regular sleep pattern as best as possible.
Jeff Gorter: [00:07:36] Now, while this may seem simplistic, it’s almost a badge of honor in helping professions to skip lunch yet again, to drink nothing but coffee during my shift, or to go without rest because, you know, I’m helping people. The truth is, all that that does is exhaust me physically and makes me less able to actually help. Taking care of yourself is taking care of others.
Jeff Gorter: [00:08:04] Next, closely related to this is doing something physical, some form of moderate exercise on a regular basis. The research is abundantly clear that even small efforts, small movements, for example, a brisk walk around the block or simply standing up and stretching periodically throughout the day, intentionally building that into my schedule, can have a surprisingly big impact on one’s mental and physical health.
Jeff Gorter: [00:08:34] Movement of any kind helps the body begin to rebalance the chemicals released by the stressful situation, and it reminds the mind that I’m not stuck. I’m not physically stuck. I’m not emotionally stuck. I can take action even if it starts with something small, like standing up and stretching or walking around.
Jeff Gorter: [00:08:56] Finally, cultivate a support system outside of work. While your co-workers, what’s come to be called your work family, can be an undeniable source of support and encouragement, it’s essential to have friends outside of the healthcare industry as well. The intensity, the camaraderie of health care tends to form strong, equally intense connections among the co-workers. But if co-workers become my only social connection, it can be stifling. Having a wide network of people is grounding. And, it reminds us that there is life outside of the hospital as well.
Jeff Gorter: [00:09:40] Now, healthcare workers have without a doubt been on the frontlines of managing the global pandemic for the last 18 months. But it’s not as if their jobs were stress-free before COVID-19 struck. Maintaining compassion satisfaction has never been more essential than right now in the current crisis, but also as a continuing practice, even when the pandemic no longer dominates our horizon.
Jeff Gorter: [00:09:40] R3 Continuum can help healthcare organizations to do this with consultation, educational resources, behavioral health support, and direct onsite support delivered by trained crisis consultants. On our website at r3c.com, we provide resources under the Our Resources tab. To learn more about how we can support your organization, contact us today.
R3 Continuum (R3c) is a global leader in workplace behavioral health and security solutions. R3c helps ensure the psychological and physical safety of organizations and their people in today’s ever-changing and often unpredictable world. Through their continuum of tailored solutions, including evaluations, crisis response, executive optimization, protective services, and more, they help organizations maintain and cultivate a workplace of wellbeing so that their people can thrive. Learn more about R3c at www.r3c.com.
R3 Continuum is the underwriter of Workplace MVP, a show which celebrates the everyday heroes–Workplace Most Valuable Professionals–in human resources, risk management, security, business continuity, and the C-suite who resolutely labor for the well-being of employees in their care, readying the workplace for and planning responses to disruption.