Jun 08, 2015 10:00 AM

Author: Cancer Learning Center

Sammie woke up tired this morning, just like she does most mornings. More than that, she hasn’t really felt much lately. She hasn’t laughed—really laughed—in a long time. Even sorrow has lost its sting. Despite the recent deaths of patients for whom she provides care, she just feels numb. While tears are missing, however, she can’t help but notice that her patients haunt her dreams. Though she once found purpose and fulfillment in her work, Sammie’s 20 years of nursing have taken a toll and she now wonders if she can continue paying the psychological costs.

While Sammie is fictional, her experience is not. Burnout and compassion fatigue are all too common for healthcare providers across the spectrum of care—from physicians, nurses, and social workers to house staff, schedulers, and everyone in between.

People suffering from compassion fatigue and burnout experience increased exhaustion and cynicism, and decreased feelings of professional worth. Care providers may experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)-type symptoms such as intrusive thoughts and imagery, sleep disturbances, feelings of helplessness, black-and-white thinking, anger, and more. It is important to note that these feelings don’t come from incompetence or character weakness. Instead, these conditions can affect even the most highly competent, committed, and compassionate providers.

Addressing these costs of caring is not easy. While good work-life balance is essential to treatment, taking a long vacation will not make compassion fatigue or burnout better. Neither will ignoring these feelings. In fact, individuals may fall into unhealthy coping methods such as alcohol abuse and social isolation, which actually reinforce the symptoms. Effective treatment requires consistent efforts in self-awareness, self-care, social support, and even counseling.

Supporting staff in these efforts, the Linda B. and Robert B. Wiggins Wellness and Integrative Health Center at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) offers its services to employees at a discounted rate. These services include massage, acupuncture, and yoga. To access services at the Wellness and Integrative Health Center, call 801-587-4585. Additionally, HCI’s Patient and Family Support offers an off-site, multi-day staff retreat aimed at increasing self-awareness and developing personal strategies to manage burnout and compassion fatigue. If you are interested in attending one of these off-site workshops, talk with your manger and e-mail daniel.lancaster@hci.utah.edu.

Though it is often difficult to prioritize caring for yourself and your psychological wellbeing, remember that doing so makes you a more effective provider and employee. As secondary trauma scholar Jon Conte, PhD, noted, “We are stewards not just of those who allow us into their lives, but of our own capacity to be helpful.”

Cancer Learning Center

Huntsman Cancer Institute


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