What is Nursing Stress, Burnout, or Compassion Fatigue?

Being a nurse is a dream come true for many people looking for a fulfilling and rewarding career. However, any practicing nurse can tell you that it is not the easiest job in the world. It requires strength, patience, and often more empathy than seems humanly possible. While feelings of frustration are totally normal, there are more severe issues like burnout and compassion fatigue. Read on to learn more about how to deal with these pressures as a nurse.


Everyone feels stress at some point in their lives and there’s no limit to what can bring it on. You work with people who are often in pain or sick or worries. You know there isn’t much you can do to alleviate this other than do your best to treat the illness and make the patient comfortable. Other work demands can also induce stress in nurses. Long hours, irregular shifts, time constraints, low budgets, difficult management – all these things can contribute to feelings of stress in your work.

An episode of extreme stress is like a rainstorm. We all know that rainstorms are a natural phenomenon that will occur, whether we need the rain or not. Stress is the same – we will all experience it at some point. As with the storm, we should prepare ourselves to withstand the stress that may face us. During times when you are not feeling the stress, take time to prepare for the coming storm. You don’t know when it will come or how strong it will be, so it’s important to ready yourself for when it hits. Here are some ideas for how to prepare yourself for the storm of stress:

  • Self-care. Take time to take care of yourself. Make sure you are eating well and staying hydrated. Take yourself for a massage. Get some moderate exercise each day. The better you feel physically, the easier it will be to face the emotional toll of stress.
  • Get support. Make sure you have a good support network around you that can help you when the storm hits. Your family at home should be contributing to housework and meal planning and preparing. Your coworkers are also people you should be able to lean on so make sure you are there for them as well. Sharing the load at work makes everyone’s lives easier, no matter who is facing a storm.
  • Practice stress management. The storm will come regardless, so make sure you are mentally prepared. Stress management techniques are available for you to practice any time you need. Once you have a few reliable strategies you can use, you’ll be better able to handle the hurricane coming up.

When the storm hits, you should be prepared to do what you can to mitigate the problems that come with it. Practice your stress management techniques and call on your support system for help. Once the stress is over (and it will end, we promise), you need to recover from using up all of your emotional and mental resources. Take some time to rest as you get back to preparing for the next storm.


Burnout is a phenomenon that can occur in literally every profession. It signifies the breaking down of a person’s will to keep giving work their all. Here are some signs that you might be experiencing work-related burnout:

  • Loss of interest in your work. For nurses, this is a big one. We know that the job is difficult, but we love it anyway. Once you start to lose interest in your work, you lose effectiveness as a healer. If you notice that you’re losing interest, do not jump to the conclusion that you are in the wrong profession or aren’t cut out for nursing. It probably just means that your energy is being used up and you haven’t been able to find a way to build it up yet.
  • Decreased productivity. If you’re experiencing burnout, you’re going to be less productive. Without that drive to do what you do, you’ll be doing less of it. You may find yourself being short with patients or skipping out on paperwork.
  • Feeling frustrated in a job as difficult and demanding as nursing is normal. However, feeling such extreme frustration with every aspect of the job and allowing it to prevent you from working is burnout.

Burnout is caused by many things, but essentially it is caused by doing too much. You may be trying to fit in a few extra shifts while renovating your house. Meanwhile, your kids need you present, and your significant other is deserving of your attention as well. There are a lot of demands you face; to prevent burnout, prioritize what is most important figure out where you can cut back a little.

Compassion Fatigue

As a nurse, you see many people every day who are fighting for their lives, who are in chronic pain, or who are watching their loved ones suffer. Compassion and empathy are all but required of a good nurse, so chances are you’ve expressed these feelings to others.

Compassion fatigue is when you are experiencing emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion by being around this kind of suffering so regularly. It is so severe, in fact, that it is also termed “secondary post-traumatic stress disorder.”  When you are constantly surrounded by pain and suffering, you might absorb those feelings and become despondent. Here are some signs to look for if you suspect you are experiencing compassion fatigue:

If you suspect that you are suffering from compassion fatigue, talk with someone from your support system or a therapist. Ask for help from those around you.

Final Thoughts

As a nurse, you will struggle with your work. It is an incredibly demanding profession. If you find yourself experience stress, burnout, or compassion fatigue, find someone to talk to and start working on management techniques to help you get through your tough time. Remember: nothing is hopeless, even if it feels like it is some days.

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