Andrew Wettengel / Thursday, February 17, 2022 / Categories: Work World


Between the pandemic and a nationwide nursing shortage, compassion fatigue in nursing has grown rapidly. Nurses have had to take on more cases, exposing them to many traumatizing situations and leading to secondary traumatic stress. This includes travel nurses, who are contracted to fill positions short-term in healthcare facilities where they are needed the most.

It’s important to understand the scale of compassion fatigue that many healthcare workers are currently dealing with, including for nurses who travel. Compassion fatigue in travel nursing can develop over long periods of time, so it’s important to know the warning signs, as well as what can be done to prevent this condition from getting worse.

What Is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue develops in nurses when they’ve been overexposed to high-stress environments and the suffering of others. When nurses give so much of themselves to their patients and experience one case of suffering after another, they begin to feel exhausted and traumatized from navigating emotions and patient suffering.

Compassion fatigue tends to appear rapidly. Fortunately, this also means that you can recover from it quickly, as long as symptoms are recognized and managed early on. Nurses experiencing compassion fatigue may show signs of burnout, secondary traumatic stress, and lack of compassion satisfaction in their jobs.

If not treated, compassion fatigue in nursing can lead to more serious problems, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and others. It’s important for healthcare workers to seek help if they are experiencing compassion fatigue to prevent any negative impact on other patients or the healthcare system as a whole.

How Is Compassion Fatigue Different than Burnout?

Many people often confuse compassion fatigue with burnout. While the two share some similarities, there are many ways that these two conditions are different. Burnout is typically characterized by four main steps:

  • Enthusiasm: You have energy and are satisfied with your job. You may feel more innovative, creative, and committed to what you’re doing.
  • Stagnation: Stress begins to kick in, and optimism starts to wane. As symptoms intensify, you’ll feel more stagnant with your work and won’t be able to complete tasks in a timely or effective manner.
  • Frustration: Burnout becomes more critical, making it harder for you to cope with symptoms. You may experience behavioral changes, extreme pessimism, and self-doubt. 
  • Apathy: This stage of burnout is when symptoms become habitual, and you learn how to cope with feeling no emotions and emptiness. You may experience chronic fatigue, both physically and mentally, and depression.

Burnout tends to emerge over time, while compassion fatigue may come on more quickly. Nurses experiencing burnout display both physical and mental exhaustion and have a depleted ability to cope with their everyday environment. If stress from burnout is unresolved, it can quickly impact your ability to do your job and other aspects of your life.

Other common symptoms of burnout usually include emotional and mental exhaustion, isolation from others, depersonalization, and a reduced sense of meaning or personal accomplishment. If not treated, burnout can quickly create more problems at your job and in your personal life and contribute to the feeling of compassion fatigue.

Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue in nursing may show a range of symptoms depending on the person, but common ones include:

  • Increase in emotional intensity
  • Decrease in cognitive ability
  • Sleep disturbance and nervous system arousal
  • Impairment of judgment and behavior
  • Loss of morale, self-worth, hope, and meaning
  • Isolation from others
  • Mental health disorders such as depression and PTSD
  • Impact on identity, worldview, and spirituality
  • Existential despair
  • Anger toward causal events

Nurses may also show signs of compassion fatigue in how they react to certain situations. Many nurses will experience behavioral changes that cause them to react and respond differently than they normally would.

Not all these symptoms will appear rapidly or at once; instead, they may take time to surface. As time goes on and symptoms aren’t addressed, nurses may experience severe apathy and an inability to care or show concern for others due to their compassion skills being overused.

How Is Compassion Fatigue Different for Travel Nurses?

Like other nursing staff, travel nurses are repeatedly exposed to the suffering of others, causing them to develop the inability to show empathy. Compassion fatigue in travel nursing, however, may look a little different due to the nature of their job.

Travel nurses are contracted for shorter periods of time, typically to fill staffing shortages in certain hospitals or other healthcare facilities. Many travel nurses are willing to work in various capacities, meaning they may work in different travel nursing specialties in a particular facility. With so much exposure to different patient situations, travel nurses may start to feel overwhelmed and burned out.

Compassion fatigue may look different for travel nurses than for staff nurses. One of the reasons for this is that travel nurses are usually away from their family and friends. Without a solid support system, the risk of compassion fatigue is much higher. Additionally, it’s much easier for travel nurses to isolate themselves if they’re in a new location where they’ve never been and don’t know anyone.

According to a study done at the University of Arizona, commonly reported symptoms of compassion fatigue specifically seen with travel nurses included:

  • Fatigue
  • Isolation
  • Disassociation
  • Physical pain
  • Second-hand grief
  • Dysfunctional communication
  • Doubt in oneself and their role as a nurse

Many travel nurses work in high acuity units, like the Emergency Room (ER) or the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). While working in these hospital units, compassion fatigue in travel nurses may be triggered by limited resources in the hospital unit, patient influence and complexity, length of nursing shift, and witnessing death.

How Can Travel Nurses Prevent Compassion Fatigue?

With compassion fatigue in travel nursing becoming so rampant, many wonder what strategies can be used to address compassion fatigue and reduce feelings of burnout and secondary traumatic stress. Here at OneStaff Medical, we recommend the following tips for preventing compassion fatigue from affecting your ability to work and overall well-being.

  • Exercise and eat a nutritious diet.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Develop interests and hobbies outside of nursing.
  • Take some time off if you start to feel burned out.
  • Look for travel nursing assignments close to family and friends.
  • Consider traveling with your family, or bringing friends and pets along with you.
  • Remain open to making new friends and taking advantage of new experiences in different locations.

We understand that compassion fatigue can’t always be prevented for those working in healthcare. Nursing is a high-stress position that can affect your physical and emotional well-being. If you’re already experiencing compassion fatigue, we recommend looking for healthy ways to manage it.

Managing Compassion Fatigue as a Travel Nurse

Many travel nurses may make the mistake of managing compassion fatigue with unhealthy habits, such as self-isolating, drinking alcohol, working extra shifts, and not speaking with clinical professionals. This can be a huge mistake and may even make symptoms worse.

To properly manage compassion fatigue, many travel nurses will have to come to terms with their feelings of self-doubt, isolation, and exhaustion, and then seek professional help when needed. You should understand that the pain you’re feeling is completely normal, and it helps to have someone to talk to about it.

Compassion fatigue in travel nursing can also be managed with focus group discussions and increased self-care strategies. Even when working long shifts, it’s important for travel nurses to take time for themselves outside of medicine to enjoy their favorite hobbies or spend time with friends.

In the future, healthcare facilities may attempt to reduce job intensity or implement coping plans to help nurses as they experience compassion fatigue. In the interim, travel nurses should be aware of compassion fatigue warning signs and ways they can cope with symptoms.

OneStaff Medical is a travel nursing agency that can place you in your dream travel nursing assignment. To learn more, browse our current job openings or contact us at 877-783-1483.

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