Compassion Fatigue vs Burnout in Nursing

Compassion Fatigue vs Burnout

The American nursing workforce of more than 4 million nurses impacts almost every aspect of healthcare. In a system that is constantly evolving and pushing the limits in pursuit of innovation and optimal patient outcomes, it is the nurses that have the most face time with patients. 

Yes, COVID certainly brought to the attention of the nation the challenges faced by nurses during a time of uncertainty, where essential workers all throughout medicine were hailed as heroes. But nursing had its fair share of challenges even before COVID reared its ugly head. A looming nursing shortage combined with an ever expanding gap between expectations in clinical practice and experience painted a grim outlook for the profession. 

The reality is that, while nursing can be one of the most rewarding careers out there, it’s just plain hard some days. Nursing is physically and emotionally taxing in an environment filled with high risk scenarios, in a system designed so that the needs of others come before yours.

Nurses need to be aware of the risk associated with these stressors and the importance of mental health in healthcare, as they can lead to compassion fatigue, or even worse, total burnout. Being aware of the signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue vs burnout may help you recognize them in your colleagues or even yourself, creating an opportunity for help.


Nurses often work in high-stress, high-pressure situations that sometimes leave them feeling exhausted both physically and emotionally at the end of their day. This is simply not sustainable.

Burnout is, unfortunately, very common in nursing, and has caught the attention of the World Health Organization (WHO) which classified it as an occupational phenomenon. The WHO defines burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic stress in the workplace that has not been properly managed. Nurse burnout goes well beyond having the occasional bad day, or even a bad week.

Contributing Factors to Burnout

There is no single aspect of the job that contributes to nurse burnout. In a role with so many moving parts,  it doesn’t take much for a sense of balance to be lost.

  • Workload – A consistently excessive workload can lead to physical and mental exhaustion.
  • Equity – Feeling as though you’re being treated unfairly can contribute to mental stress.
  • Isolation – A sense of lacking community and belonging can alienate and depress nurses.
  • Autonomy – A diminished sense of autonomy and loss of control can precipitate distrust and anxiety.

Signs of Burnout

Because everyone has a different threshold for stress and responds to it in a different way, the signs of burnout may vary from person to person. Burnout is more than just feeling tired at the end of your shift, it’s a set of chronic symptoms that accompany the chronic nature of the stress experienced. Signs of burnout include:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Frequent irritability
  • Lack of sense of joy or happiness while on the job
  • Feelings of anxiety
  • Indifference to work related responsibilities
  • Not wanting to go to work – which can manifest in frequent call outs

Compassion Fatigue

Although the driving forces behind burnout can also contribute to compassion fatigue, the real genesis of compassion fatigue comes from exposure to the traumatic experience of others. Logically, this aligns with health professions as healthcare workers are often taking care of others through traumatic events. 

While burnout is attributed to the stressful nature of the work environment, compassion fatigue is a direct result of caring for others. This presents quite the quandary for nurses as the whole premise of the profession is to care for others. 

Contributing Factors of Compassion Fatigue

While burnout is a result of the compounding influence of stress in the workplace such as workload, long hours, and not feeling supported in your role, compassion fatigue can be brought on in some by exposure to a single traumatic event such as:

  • Providing care for others in their time of death or mourning
  • Providing compassionate, high-quality care that doesn’t improve the outcome
  • Feeling as though you’re unable to provide proper care to a patient
  • Supporting a patient through attempts to self harm
  • Delivering care in a setting where you feel unsafe

Impact of Compassion Fatigue

The major impact of compassion fatigue results in an impaired ability for someone to experience empathy towards others. This is especially concerning in a role like nursing where effective caring and compassion towards others is supported by an empathetic perspective on their condition and outcome.

With a lack of empathy, compassion fatigue can profoundly impact one’s relationship with others. This can include relationships with family, friends, and colleagues resulting in negative interactions with those around them. Additional signs of compassion fatigue can include:

  • Headaches
  • Digestive problems
  • Sleep disorders
  • Distancing oneself from others
  • Avoiding previously enjoyed experiences

Avoiding Burnout and Compassion Fatigue

As with many things related to your health, prevention is the best medicine. Making a point of supporting our own emotional wellness and extending empathy and compassion to coworkers as well as patients can make all the difference. Managing work related challenges is made much easier with professional self-care and an appreciation for wellness and resilience.

Overall Wellness

Supporting your overall wellness and the wellness of others is an essential component of self-care supportive recovery from work related stress and trauma. To lessen the chances of experiencing burnout or compassion fatigue, prioritize getting appropriate rest, exercise, and maintaining a healthy diet.


Resilience and emotional intelligence can help avoid a negative state of mind and support the ability to overcome adverse situations. Resilience and emotional intelligence can help nurses acknowledge, process, and regulate their emotions while fostering a sense of optimism.

Recognizing Compassion Fatigue vs Burnout in Nursing

The signs and symptoms of both compassion fatigue and burnout can be similar, but the drivers behind the experiences are different. Neither is mutually exclusive of one another, and within the complex role of being a nurse, numerous opportunities for exposure to stress and trauma exist. The greatest weapon against both compassion fatigue and burnout is to appreciate the risk and think proactively. 

Prevention begins with education. Courses like Burnout, Chronic Stress, and Suicidality Among Nurses by Premiere’s Megan Arbour PhD, RN, CNM, CNE will readily equip nurses with information on the causes and negative implications related to burnout.

Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top