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Compassion Fatigue: Self-Care Best Practices for Nurses on the Front Line

College of Nursing faculty member says awareness, balance, and connecting to purpose can help build resilience.

The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated the resolute spirit of nurses, who are working under extreme conditions to save lives while often risking their own. While the demands on these healthcare heroes are unprecedented, nurses often experience intense physical and emotional challenges on the job, even in the absence of a disease outbreak.

“Nursing has long been viewed as a compassionate profession, offering support that encompasses patients’ physical and emotional needs,” says Dr. Dorothy Dulko, a full-time faculty member in Walden University’s Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree program. “While this can be fulfilling, nurses often experience distress from frequent contact with patients, especially when there is lack of balance between job demands and available resources. The emotional cost of caring for others coupled with increasing patient complexity and negative professional interactions can lead to compassion fatigue.”

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Dr. Dulko says nurse compassion fatigue is defined as “a state of exhaustion and dysfunction—biologically, psychologically, and socially—as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress.” In her over 30 years as an advanced practice nurse, hospital administrator, educator, and researcher, Dr. Dulko has seen that it can happen at any point in a nursing career. “It is an individual experience,” she says. “And each shift has the potential to be a stressful endeavor.”

In teaching students how to combat compassion fatigue, Dr. Dulko offers these ABCs—best practices for managing self-care on the front lines, and in other in challenging personal and professional situations:

Awareness

  • Recognize the reality and risks of nurse compassion fatigue
  • Recognize symptoms of compassion fatigue, your personal triggers, and recovery activities

Balance

  • Maintain work and personal life balance
  • Appreciate both positive and difficult aspects of clinical situations
  • Engage in staff development activities and resources related to self-care and resilience
  • Balance high-intensity and less stressful professional activities
  • Engage in professional development opportunities
  • Attend professional meetings
  • Return to higher education
  • Exhibit compassion while maintaining professional boundaries
  • Protect time off the unit during assigned shifts 

Connect to Purpose

  • Find a nurse mentor or become a mentor
  • Explore opportunities to get involved in projects promoting social change
  • Engage in professional development and higher education 
  • Pursue an online bachelor’s or master’s degree in nursing, or a PhD in Nursing
  • Earn a specialty certification
  • Participate in on-site continuing nursing education programs  

Dr. Dulko says for her, lifelong learning has been a key tool in holding compassion fatigue at bay.

“Starting out as an associate degree nurse, all the way from my BSN to my PhD, higher education always empowered and inspired me,” she says. Education is key to remaining motivated while exploring your nursing passion. Research supports the association between higher education and reduced compassion fatigue. “A meta-analysis of 21 epidemiological studies found in regression analyses that having a bachelor’s or master’s degree was significantly inversely associated with the percent prevalence of compassion fatigue.”

Advance Your Career in Nursing
If you’re ready to take the next step in your nursing education, let Walden University’s online nursing programs help you develop your next-level skills. As an innovative leader in distance education, Walden offers an online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)degree program that lets you tailor your studies to your career interests. Choose from nurse practitioner specializations or specialty practice areas that include Nursing Education and Public Health Nursing.

Like Dr. Dulko, all of the teaching faculty members in Walden’s master’s in nursing online degree program have doctoral degrees and a depth of real-life experience. You’ll learn from experts who have walked the walk and can help prepare you for the challenges and rewards of 21st-century nursing. Build your professional skills and personal resilience in Walden’s online MSN program and make your mark in a nursing career that sparks your passion and serves the greater good.

Dr. Dorothy Dulko is a full-time faculty member in Walden University’s MSN degree program. Dr. Dulko earned her PhD in Cancer Nursing Research from the University of Utah College of Nursing in Salt Lake City in 2007. She earned a postgraduate certificate in Bioethics and Medical Humanities from New York University. She holds a Master of Science degree as a Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner and a post-master’s certificate as an Adult Health Nurse Practitioner from Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York. She has over 30 years of experience as an advanced practice nurse, hospital administrator, educator, and researcher. She holds national certifications as an Adult Health Nurse Practitioner, Advanced Oncology Nurse Practitioner, and Certified Clinical Research Professional.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering a Master of Science in Nursing online. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission, www.hlcommission.org.

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