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Compassion linked to emotion exhaustion among nurses


Nurses can suffer themselves from being required to display compassion at all times, according to UK researchers.

Nurses who were required to display higher levels of compassion were more likely to feel emotionally exhausted, a study by the University of Bedfordshire found.

In addition, nurses who had higher levels of empathy felt emotionally exhausted too, the authors said.

The findings are based on a sample of 351 nurses who completed a serious of online questionnaires about their lives in work and beyond.

Study author Professor Gail Kinman said: “Displaying compassion and empathy is a fundamental requirement in nursing and is valued by patients and their families. However, this ‘emotional labour’ can affect their wellbeing.

“Our research found some support for the idea that emotional support can help break this relationship,” she warned.

“Further research is needed to develop interventions that will help nurses learn to deliver compassionate, patient-centred care while maintaining the emotional boundaries that will protect their own wellbeing,” she added.

The new findings chime with previous research reported by Nursing Times. Researchers at Leicester University’s school of psychology warned in 2009 that nurses run the risk of developing mental health problems if they empathised too much with patients.

The authors said nurses may develop flashbacks, sleeping difficulties, emotional detachment and other symptoms associated with distress and trauma.

The last few years have seen compassion become a political buzzword in the wake of the high profile care failings like those at Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust and cases such as that of convicted murderer Colin Norris.

It has led to aptitude tests being introduced by many universities and employers to try and measure the values and compassion levels of prospective students and recruits.

Health Education England is also in the process of piloting the idea that those planning to do a nursing degree should complete up to a year working as a healthcare assistant prior to starting their course – a move championed by the government.  

However, the topic of compassion remains a controversial one within nursing itself, with some arguing that nurses are unfairly being singled out compared to other groups of frontline health professionals.   

Earlier this week the Care Quality Commission’s chief inspector of hospitals told the Independent newspaper that compassion in the NHS was “alive and well”.

Professor Sir Mike Richards insisted outstanding care was possible within the NHS after completing his first wave of hospital inspections.

The Bedfordshire research was due to be presented today at the annual conference of the British Psychological Society’s division of occupational psychology in Brighton.


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Readers' comments (11)

  • The finding seems intuitively likely.

    As does:

    'Researchers at Leicester University’s school of psychology warned in 2009 that nurses run the risk of developing mental health problems if they empathised too much with patients.'

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  • For too long we have had to empathise with our patients (a given ) but we often have sort out feelings in our own minds without having someone to talk to and explain how we feel
    Leads to burn out, relationship breakdowns etc
    Enlightened employers provide counselling a very necessary thing today

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  • You can be both compassionate and empathetic without being a gibbering-wreck. I'd suggest the 'burn-out' comes from being overworked not 'over-caring'.

    Nurses must maintain professional boundaries and a certain distance - you're there to do a job.

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  • People who are involved in counselling are often counselled, supervised, debriefed themselves from other experienced colleagues/staff. That way, it helps with everyone's coping mechanisms, plan and develop further strategies, enable learning and development to continue, as well as improving future care of people requiring counselling and support.
    Nurses generally have to work in various roles (including physical care, mental, emotional, psychological support, continuing physio + occupational therapies, medicine/health advice, provider of information to family, link with social care, etc) to deliver holistic care for patients as well as working days and nights, all of which can be very stressful and emotionally challenging.
    The same care and support should be applied and available to nurses as and when needed.

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  • tinkerbell

    Anonymous | 8-Jan-2014 3:44 pm

    Agree. Exactly! Most nurses don't get burnt out from caring but from being overworked and having gruelling shift patterns with too few days off to recover in between.

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  • Would agree that most of the nurses get burnt out from being over worked and not getting enough time off to recover from exhaustion.Also true that relationships are destroyed, would give for example when one nurse is made to work 3-4 nights, one day off then start long day, when do this nurse recover from exhaustion and when do this nurse have time with the family???Too much empathy and other nursing duties are never a problem if the nurse works fair duties.
    I wonder if the NMC knows the abuse nurses get from these unfair duties, written to take or leave???It makes nurses loose moral and love for their work as even when off you feel on duty thinking of whether you did well or are going to manage the next day due to fatigue.

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  • Is compassion not an element to the job we are paid to do? The job we have been trained to deliver? A basic part of our human existance? Please! Another useless study to tell us someting we already know!

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  • michael stone

    I suspect that there is a problem affecting nurses in particular, about this ‘empathy’ issue. I wrote the following on the Dignity In Care website last May:

    I'm also interested in this current 'media frenzy' about 'nurses don't care any more'. Most of the nurses on Nursing Times, say 'we don't have the time to show that we care'. But, I've got this 'gut feeling', that perhaps many laymen, judge 'how much a nurse is caring', by looking for 'how much the nurse seems to be suffering with us' - hugely unfair ! … But I suspect that 'we patients' don't expect doctors 'to suffer with us' in the same way ?

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  • We also know that some people are born with these qualities, those are the people we want in nursing, that is why we are calling for a rigorous interview for our future nurses, not just getting into nursing because it is a good career, it is in some people's nature to be compassionate,respectful, and caring.

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  • Compassion comes within the person, but is nurtured from a caring environment. Balance is key.

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