Battling Compassion Fatigue and Burn-out in Healthcare

November 7, 2012 Darcy Jacobsen

The first goal of any hospital, medical practice, or health care organization is always the same: to help patients receive quality, cost-effective health care. It is a goal that is never forgotten by good healthcare workers, no matter how much pressure is heaped on them.

And let’s be clear—a lot of pressure certainly has been heaped on healthcare in recent years, including increased legislation, insurance or budget strictures, and patient privacy concerns. Combine that with trend toward mergers and consolidations, the introduction of new technologies, increased concern with health outcomes, and the endemic difficulty of hiring and keeping staff, and that adds up to a whole lot of pressure on an already emotional and challenging profession. The constant and growing stress has been linked with burnout and attrition across the industry.

The biggest issue facing healthcare, however, might be this one: healthcare workers are among the most caring, engaged and dedicated employees in any industry.

Wait, you might ask, how is that a problem? Well, it shouldn’t be. But BECAUSE they spend such an enormous amount of compassion and energy for their patients and clients, healthcare workers often experience far more stress and chronic emotional burnout than workers in other industries. Healthcare experts refer to this problem as “compassion fatigue”(or secondary traumatic stress).

Early literature on compassion fatigue concentrated on oncology and trauma workers and their more acute burnout, but much of the scholarship has rightly pointed out that the results are a natural consequence of caring for clients who are in pain, suffering or traumatized, and are felt across the industry. According to Health magazine: “compassion fatigue ‘is an insidious process that eats away at people’.”

This enormous expenditure of emotion and energy means that those who work in healthcare are themselves in dire need of support and appreciation from their peers and management, simply in order to refill their emotional reserves.

This has not gone un-noticed by healthcare managers. Increasingly, healthcare and healthcare support organizations are looking for ways to ease some of the stress on employees, and offer tangible emotional and institutional support

According to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Program, the symptoms and results of compassion fatigue in an organization include:

  • High absenteeism
  • Constant changes in co-workers relationships
  • Inability for teams to work well together
  • Desire among staff members to break company rules
  • Outbreaks of aggressive behaviors among staff
  • Inability of staff to complete assignments and tasks
  • Inability of staff to respect and meet deadlines
  • Lack of flexibility among staff members
  • Negativism towards management
  • Strong reluctance toward change
  • Inability of staff to believe improvement is possible
  • Lack of a vision for the future


Clearly, all of these issues are serious and concerning ones for healthcare providers, institutions and support organizations. In a recent report, the CDC qualified the issue of burnout and compassion fatigue this way:

Healthcare workers are exposed to a number of stressors, ranging from work overload, time pressures, and lack of role clarity to dealing with infectious diseases and difficult and ill, helpless patients. Such stressors can lead to physical and psychological symptoms, absenteeism, turnover, and medical errors. However, the literature points to both organizational and worker-focused interventions that can successfully reduce stress among health care workers.

To that end, the CDC has offered the following list of measures:

  • Ensure that the workload is in line with workers’ capabilities and resources
  • Clearly define workers’ roles and responsibilities
  • Give workers opportunities to participate in decisions and actions affecting their jobs
  • Improve communication
  • Reduce uncertainty about career development and future employment prospects
  • Provide opportunities for social interaction among workers


According to Psychology Today: “Studies have also shown that a positive attitude toward life such as a sense of humor, self confidence, being curious, focusing on the positive, and feeling gratitude ranked high in being helpful in treating traumatized people.”

Feeling gratitude. Perhaps this is why recognition is such a great fit for healthcare—because strategic recognition emphasizes that gratitude, along with the importance of positive feedback, general appreciation, and emotional support. Or because it emphasizes social connections and emotional engagement, while clarifying key goals and objectives. Or because it puts such a priority on culture and values and pulling people together.

In fact, when we recently interviewed the HR manager from Satellite Healthcare (one of our clients), she told us one of the reasons recognition works so well there is their ability to use recognition to unify the culture in their organization around values: “Recognition is a great cultural fit for healthcare,” she said. “Our employees are very engaged and engaged in our values, and our whole recognition program revolves around our values.”

If you’re interested in reading more about Recognition and Healthcare, please download our new paper: The Employee Experience of Healthcare Workers

Previous Article
Your Performance has been Tolerable
Your Performance has been Tolerable

The traditional performance review has been antiquated for years. We look at the need for something new tha...

Next Article
Get Your Values Off The Wall (3 of 3)
Get Your Values Off The Wall (3 of 3)

We briefly explore some ideas on defining, sharing and affirming core values for maximum success, including...