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Who comforts nurses?
It’s a question that may feel odd to ask, given that nurses care for and comfort others. People sometimes forget that nurses are human too.
So who is the designated person for nurses to turn to when their workload seems to be overwhelming them?
“Unfortunately sometimes nobody,” explains assistant teaching professor Stacie Hunsaker. Hunsaker studies two phenomenon that occur frequently in the nursing profession—burnout and empathy fatigue.
Burnout, she explains, is “exhaustion from the demands of work” and can happen in any job. Empathy fatigue is a condition that is a bit more specific to healthcare and has reaching consequences.
“That is when a healthcare provider feels too tired to care,” Hunsaker explains. “Maybe they’ve had a lot of emotional patients, a lot of emotional cases, a lot of things that cause almost PTSD. They didn’t experience the event that caused the stress, but by caring for others and having that empathy for them, it hurts them. People often build up a hard shell to prevent more hurt, so they stop caring.”
When a nurse experiences empathy fatigue, it can deeply affect the way he or she treats patients.
“Most of us decide to enter nursing because we love people and we care for people, and if you build up a wall, you can’t make that connection with a patient,” Hunsaker says. “It really can negatively impact the patient’s care. A lot of research has shown that it can negatively impact even a patient’s recovery.”
How common is empathy fatigue? According to Hunsaker, it’s fairly prevalent.
“There are a lot of studies and a lot of research that it’s most often recognized and probably the biggest problem in those areas that have more exposure to death or dying or psychologically exhausting patients,” she says. These areas include intensive care units, emergency departments, and oncology.
Luckily, research has also shown ways to combat empathy fatigue. Some are basic, such as getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating well. Hunsaker recommends that new nurses avoid picking up too many overtime shifts and take sufficient time to focus on themselves and their relationships with others outside of work. Positivity is also an important tool.
“The number one thing that’s easy to do that I would suggest for nurses is every night before you go to bed write down three good things that happened to you,” she says.
Additionally, nurses need to find someone who they can turn to for help. Research has shown that those who comfort in turn need someone to comfort them.
“I teach and try to tell my students and new nurses to talk to somebody that you know gets it or understands,” Hunsaker says.
One of these sources can be Heavenly Father.
“I can’t imagine practicing nursing without prayer and without praying before a shift, without praying before a difficult case or after,” Hunsaker says.