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1. Be kind to yourself

Especially when you’re experiencing a lot of stress at work. Spend at least 10 minutes a day doing something you love away from work – be it time in nature, walking, or time with friends – something that will refill your emotional cup.

2. Think about what you‘re eating

Instead of feeling stressed and turning straight to the sugary snacks, be mindful of eating healthily and regularly to refuel yourself.

3. Spend time relaxing

It’s easy to stay on the treadmill of life but you need to take yourself down to baseline anxiety level. This could be by doing something as simple as listening to music, doing mindfulness exercises, tai chi, or anything that helps with your breathing. Try to practise when you’re not feeling stressed so you can use it as a tool when you are.

4. Recharge your batteries on a daily basis

Refuel, relax, and sleep. When we talk to people about what is it that drains their battery most, they say lack of sleep. Wherever possible, set yourself up for a good night.

5. Keep on top of life admin

Having a tidy house and keeping domestic paperwork in order will help you feel able to focus on your job and less likely to worry about home life. 

“When you work in nursing, you’re an emotional athlete. And in the same way athletes look after themselves to win the race, they also look after themselves so they don’t get hurt,” says Jayne Ellis.

“What you’re being asked to do emotionally is huge, and we have to take better care of ourselves.”

After working as a nurse for 30 years, Jayne stepped away from a frontline role five years ago. Her first-hand experiences of compassion fatigue mean she’s acutely aware of the emotional toll of working in a caring role and is passionate about raising awareness.

It's the physical and emotional reaction to the trauma you witness 

“At my lowest ebb I sat on the kitchen floor, wondering what to do,” says Jayne, recalling her breakdown. “Nursing had just about broken me. The huge workload, chronic understaffing and keeping going for longer than I should have had once again resulted in a massive panic attack.”

Jayne says she followed the conventional wisdom of taking sick leave, counselling and prescribed medication and returned to work as “mended”, but each time she discovered nothing had changed.

“At the time I didn’t realise that what I was experiencing was this thing called compassion fatigue. Because I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t recognise the symptoms.” 

What is compassion fatigue?

Jayne says compassion fatigue was first written about in the late 1980s by psychologist Charles Figley, who described it as the inevitable consequence of being immersed every day in other people’s suffering.

“It’s the physical and emotional reaction to the trauma you witness,” she adds. “It’s an occupational hazard. The symptoms will ebb and flow depending on what you’re being asked to do, the intensity of the conditions you’re working in and also what’s going on at home. Obviously, the pandemic has shone a light on the issue, but it’s been a problem for a long time.”

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms include a constant feeling of anxiety, finding it difficult to relax and switch off, feeling breathless and unable to sleep. “People tend to start micro-managing – not just at work, but at home too,” adds Jayne.

“On the outside people may seem very organised but underneath they’re peddling like hell as they’re on this adrenaline treadmill. To step off and relax is very hard. They may tip into feeling irritable and fly off the handle at small things or start to feel withdrawn and detached. It’s the feeling of having given everything and being emotionally spent.” 

The constant stress, Jayne says, can affect the immune system, with some people experiencing multiple minor illnesses, or headaches and back and neck pain.

Can you recover?

With help, you can, says Jayne. “A big first step is recognising what compassion fatigue is. I’ve developed training* to address the emotional impact of nursing, with sessions covering the stress response, as well as emotional resilience and self-compassion. 

“I help people develop an individualised care plan and look at what can be done organisationally. Too many organisations go for a reactive approach to emotional health and safety. The balance needs to shift to 90% proactive and 10% reactive,” she adds.

“It’s so uplifting to hear from people who’ve become kinder to themselves and their colleagues as a result of my training – that it’s brought more kindness into their work.”

It’s this feedback that motivates Jayne to keep raising awareness of the issue and continue campaigning for emotional health and safety to have equal status to physical health and safety in every industry across the UK.

“By the time I retire, I want emotional health and safety training to be mandatory – that’s what I’m going for,” she says. 

Words by Sophie Goode

What should your employer be doing? 

Sarah Murphy from the RCN counselling service says: “It’s the employer’s responsibility to provide a safe working environment as it’s the nature of your work that’s the main contributing factor to developing compassion fatigue. There’s lots you can do to care for yourself. Talk to your colleagues, share experiences and don’t be worried about seeking help.”

Our health and wellbeing resources support you to lead a healthy life so you can maintain both your physical and mental wellbeing. Develop and maintain your own self-care plan to help prevent and manage emotional stress.

Find out about our free counselling service.

RCN Congress

Members at RCN Congress discussed whether there should be increased awareness of compassion fatigue and its potential impact on patient care. Find out more about RCN Congress

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