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Experiences of compassion fatigue in direct care nurses

a qualitative systematic review

Salmond, Erin1,2; Salmond, Susan1,3; Ames, Margaret1,2; Kamienski, Mary1,3; Holly, Cheryl1,3

JBI Database of Systematic Reviews and Implementation Reports: May 2019 - Volume 17 - Issue 5 - p 682–753
doi: 10.11124/JBISRIR-2017-003818

Objective: The objective of this review was to describe the experiences of direct care nurses with work-related compassion fatigue.

Introduction: The cumulative demands of experiencing and helping others through suffering have been considered to contribute to the potential of compassion fatigue. However, there is a lack of clarity on what specifically contributes to and constitutes compassion fatigue. Nurses suffering from compassion fatigue experience physical and emotional symptoms that leave them disconnected from patients and focused on the technical rather than the compassionate components of their role. This disconnect can also affect personal relationships outside of work.

Inclusion criteria: This review included any qualitative studies describing the experiences of direct care nurses from any specialty or any nursing work setting.

Methods: This review followed the Joanna Briggs Institute (JBI) approach for qualitative systematic reviews. Studies included in this review include those published in full text, English and between 1992, when the concept of compassion fatigue was first described, and May 2017, when the search was completed. The main databases searched for published and unpublished studies included: PubMed, CINAHL, Academic Search Premiere, Science Direct, Scopus, PsycINFO, Web of Science and the Virginia Henderson Library.

Results: Twenty-three papers, representing studies conducted in seven countries and 821 total nurse participants, met the criteria for inclusion. From these, a total of 261 findings were extracted and combined to form 18 categories based on similarity in meaning, and four syntheses were derived: i) Central to the work of nursing and the professional environment in which nurses work are significant psychosocial stressors that contribute to compassion stress and, if left unchecked, can lead to compassion fatigue; ii) Protection against the stress of the work and professional environment necessitates that the individual and team learn how to respond to “the heat of the moment”; iii) Nurses and other administrative and colleague staff should be alert to the symptoms of compassion fatigue that present as profound, progressive, physical and emotional fatigue: a feeling that the nurse just can’t go on and a sense of being disconnected and drained, like a gas tank on empty; and iv) Keeping compassion fatigue at bay requires awareness of the threat of compassion fatigue, symptoms of compassion fatigue, and the need for work-life balance and active self-care strategies.

Conclusions: The major conclusions of this review are that compassion fatigue prevention and management must be acknowledged, and both personal and organizational coping strategies and adaptive responses are needed to keep nurses balanced, renewed and able to continue compassionate connection and caring.

1School of Nursing, Rutgers University, Newark, USA

2Jersey City Medical Center, RWJ/Barnabas Health, Jersey City, USA

3The Northeast Institute for Evidence Synthesis and Translation (NEST): a Joanna Briggs Institute Centre of Excellence

Correspondence: Susan Salmond,

Conflicts of interest: SS is a member of the JBISRIR Editorial Board and was not involved in the editorial processing of this manuscript.

© 2019 by Lippincott williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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