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Compassion Fatigue from the COVID-19 Pandemic: Understanding the Current Mental Health Needs of Nurses and Other Healthcare Professionals

Healthcare professionals, particularly nurses, have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Working longer hours, risking infection, and dealing with the anxiety and stress that the past few years have brought, nurses are beginning to question whether their job is worth the anguish.

Duquesne’s School of Nursing’s Dr. Mai-Ly Nguyen Steers believes “the pandemic has negatively impacted the mental health of many healthcare workers. In fact, a recent survey of 200 nurses indicated that 90 percent of them were considering leaving the profession. However, the results also suggested that most nurses were experiencing burnout prior to the pandemic due to staffing shortages which have led to high patient-to-nurses ratios and increased demands on nurses. The pandemic may just [have] served as the tipping point for many nurses to leave the profession.”

Given the toll that nursing can take on mental health, many nursing schools have made concerted efforts to combat this. Dr. Nguyen Steer states that “at Duquesne’s School of Nursing, we recognize that [the negative mental health impact of nursing] is a huge issue among nurses. Thus, I’m heading a Mental Health Taskforce to help foster resilience among our students. We have also tried hard to build a sense of community among our students since we know how integral social support is in helping to mitigate negative health outcomes.”

Given this insight from a professional close to the industry, it seems that nurses are sacrificing their mental health for their jobs, which can have a slew of negative consequences for the healthcare industry. Given the intense nature of the past couple of years, it’s vital that people learn about, understand, and empathize with the current mental health needs of healthcare professionals.

How Is the Mental Health of Nurses and Other Healthcare Professionals Being Impacted?

During a life-altering pandemic, it would be ideal if the nation’s healthcare workers could work and function at their best. Unfortunately, this seems to be far from the reality of the current state of healthcare.

A recent study by IntelyCare found that a whopping 56% of nurses surveyed felt as if they were sacrificing their mental health for their careers. This implies that three years into the pandemic, not enough has been done to help nurses cope with the stress and harsh work conditions they’ve been forced to work in. Even with scores of crisis nurses being called upon to help understaffed hospitals, the impact on healthcare workers’ mental health has been severe.

Compassion Fatigue and Its Consequences

As a result of being overworked, exhausted, and emotionally drained from the brutal demands of the COVID-19 pandemic, many nurses have begun to experience what is known as compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue can be described as the process of healthcare workers, especially nurses, feeling detached and unempathetic towards patients due to being exhausted and exposed to trauma regularly. Dr. Mai-Ly Nguyen Steer states that “compassion fatigue can have a huge impact on the longevity of healthcare workers since it can manifest as PTSD, which can affect healthcare workers cognitively, physically, emotionally, and even spiritually.”

The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it a lack of staffing and resources, which means that many nurses have to work harder and longer than is healthy. The additional stress and responsibility that the pandemic forced upon nurses resulted in a drastic uptick in compassion fatigue in nurses across the nation. A study conducted by the American Nursing Association found that in 2021, 81% of nurses reported feeling overwhelmed at work. It makes sense then that more and more nurses are beginning to feel the harmful effects of compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue can manifest itself in several negative ways that dramatically impact patients’ experience of healthcare. Compassion fatigue often results in healthcare workers performing poorly in their duties. Given the significant and overwhelming nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, having 81% of nurses at risk of performing less than optimally is a frightening prospect. Performing poorly can include mixing up medications, being rude to patients, and it can even lead to drug addiction and alcoholism in healthcare workers.

It’s essential to understand the underlying causes of these negative impacts on mental health and ease the toxic stress experienced by so many nurses and healthcare professionals.

How Social Media Affects Mental Health in Nurses and Other Healthcare Professionals

Studies have shown that increased social media use can increase emotional exhaustion. Bearing this fact in mind, it is no surprise that there is likely a correlation between social media use and increased feelings of emotional fatigue in nurses.

In addition, recent years have seen an explosion of COVID-19-related rhetoric on social media platforms. This likely causes healthcare workers to feel even more drained outside of work since it doesn’t allow them to gain a healthy amount of distance from the stress of work.

Dr. Nguyen Steer comments, “I think the spread of misinformation concerning COVID-19 vaccines has been extremely detrimental to those within the healthcare community. Nearly every healthcare worker can now recount stories of patients on their deathbeds, [refusing] to believe they were dying of COVID-19. It can take a toll on healthcare workers’ mental health knowing that so many of these deaths could have been preventable.”

Making healthcare professionals more aware of the detrimental effect that social media can have on their mental health can be an essential step in minimizing the emotional exhaustion felt by healthcare professionals.

Improving the Mental Health of Nurses and Other Healthcare Professionals

Though the current state of mental health among healthcare workers seems bleak, some actions can be taken to minimize the adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on nurses’ and healthcare workers’ mental health states. Here are some strategies and approaches that can potentially have a positive impact on the mental health of healthcare workers:

Providing Nurses and Other Healthcare Professionals with Coping Tools

Though many healthcare workers have access to mental health resources, such as counseling, very few are taking advantage of these resources. Hospitals can aid healthcare workers by being more purposeful with their resources and encouraging their employees to utilize them. If more healthcare workers can cope with their stress through the tools and resources available, both healthcare workers and patients will benefit.

Commenting on what tools healthcare workers can utilize to stay mentally well, Dr. Nguyen Steers states that “exercising and staying healthy should be a priority. In addition, making self-care a priority, creating strong boundaries, and cultivating a sense of community so that healthcare workers feel less alone in their struggles are also essential.”

Providing Nurses and Other Healthcare Professionals with Social Support

Though many healthcare workers find respite from stress through the support of their families and friends, hospitals can make a greater effort to provide social support within their organizations. Fostering a sense of care and community for healthcare workers can improve their mental health by making them feel supported. This can be especially important for crisis nurses away from their homes and support systems.

Helping Nurses and Other Healthcare Professionals

Many depend upon nurses and healthcare workers for providing care. It’s time for organizations and individuals to come together to provide these workers with the care they require. Healthcare workers, especially nurses, deserve the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of positive mental health states.

When healthcare workers are taken care of, they, in turn, can provide better care to patients. Nurses and other healthcare workers must be provided with the help and resources they need to flourish for all of us to move past the stressful years brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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About the Author: Sarah Daren has been a consultant for startups in multiple industries, including health and wellness, wearable technology, nursing, and education. She implements her health knowledge into every aspect of her life, including her position as a yoga instructor and raising her two children.

Resources to Recover and Laurel House, Inc., the Sponsor of www.rtor.org, Salute All Nurses on National Nurses Day.

National Nurses Day is celebrated each year on May 6th. On this day, we raise awareness of nurses’ contributions and commitments and acknowledge the vital role they play in society. National Nurses Day is the first day of National Nursing Week, which ends on May 12th, Florence Nightingale’s birthday.

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The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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