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Empathising with patients may damage nurses' mental health

Nurses run the risk of developing mental health problems if they empathise too much with patients, according to research at Leicester University’s school of psychology.

The research suggested serious consequences for the personal and professional lives of the nurses concerned.

Researcher Jenny Watts said that nurses may develop flashbacks, sleeping difficulties, emotional detachment and other symptoms associated with distress and trauma.

Ms Watts will present her findings at the Festival of Postgraduate Research on June 25 in the Belvoir Suite of the university’s Charles Wilson Building.

Ms Watts says the growing number of patients over the age of 70 means it is vital to ensure that nurses stay healthy, compassionate and able to provide high-quality care.

‘Nurses caring for patients with dementia and other age-related illnesses have shown anxiety and depression following patient deterioration and death’, she says.

‘Further knowledge about nurse distress is required to shape interventions, reduce staff turnover, improve morale and maintain a high quality of care. This knowledge will be applied to shape suitable prevention and intervention strategies.’

Readers' comments (6)

  • This goes back to a previous article on nurses having to have compassion. Compassion suggests empathy. I feel a nurse does not have to have empathy with their patients she/he should just care about their job and the role they have to do. The key element in nursing is care.
    I have nursed violent drunks, and some deeply unpleasant people that I have had no empathy for at all, but the care I have given them has been consistantly within my role and, dare I say it, actually quite good.
    If I had compassion and empathy for every patient I nursed I would have been insane 30 years ago. Obviously some patients you do feel an empathy for but, in the end, you are a professional and should act as such or yes you could have a nervous breakdown. Regardless of my attempt at dispassionate professionalism some things stil haunt me -which is why I left one branch of nursing.

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  • This might explain why a couple of excellent palliative care consultants I have been associated with have suffered nervous breakdowns. There is inevitably an emotional/psychological cost in empathy, which is why effective clinical supervision, interests outside work and a sense of humour are so important. But the day I feel nothing for the suffering of my patients will be a day to go and do something else!

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  • I'm glad this survey and research are going to be published, nurses are not supported or paid enough for what we do and it was part of my training a few years ago now to be empathic to our clients and their families, now it's detrimental to our mental health and who's going to pay our bills when we're off sick and expected to live on £60 per week?

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  • As a non-nursing professional- a qualified social worker with a background in mental health services I can identify with the comments above. I had to give up on my career in mental health because my own mental health problems were making it difficult for me to function. I could empathise with the service users very well, but it wasn't helping me at the end of the day and so I had to make a very difficult choice between a job I loved and being able to carry on working at all. Eventually I came through it and what I learnt is that you have to look after yourself cos no one else is going to do it for you.

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  • Being affected by those we care for is unavoidable. It part of being human. The problem is that nurses and those in other caring professions are not taught how to deal with it and the emotional and spiritual cost of caring. A menu of refreshment that includes good supervision and reflective practice is vital for wellbeing.

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  • I think it's true. Prior to starting my nursing training, I worked with the elderly. Every winter you will lose about 5 sometimes more residents. As a carer you have to detach your feelings from your work otherwise how I you going to be able to take care of the other residents. I know its sounds cruel but to be a good worker you have to put your own health first.

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