Compassion Fatigue in the ER and Beyond: When caring leads to an inability to care

compassion fatigue

That doctor was horrible! How could she be so rude? She’s a doctor after all.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

In December 2020, a relative had just been at the hospital with my grandmother recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The oncologist on site had been described as rude and inattentive to my grandmother’s needs, or so I was told. Due to COVID-19, the number of visitors had been limited in the hospital. Everything I heard regarding the quality of care my grandmother received was through word of mouth. Initially, I was furious. Then, I stopped and pondered the situation, leading to a realization and inspiration for this article. Perhaps the doctor was not as rude as she was made out to be. Perhaps, she was undergoing compassion fatigue, the emotional and physical exhaustion leading to a diminished ability to feel compassion for others. Compassion fatigue is often due to burnout and stress, something which I believe to be more prevalent during the COVID-19 era. However, compassion fatigue is not a new term. I first heard it during my internship with the Emergency Department at Toronto Western this summer. It is only now; I am beginning to see it unfold in real life, and truly understand it. Therefore, for this article, I will discuss compassion fatigue, how to notice it, and how to prevent becoming a victim to burnout.

burn-out army
Figure 1. The Roll Call is an 1874 oil-on-canvas painting by Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler. The worn soldiers resonate, what I imagine to be a very burnt-out army of front-line workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Compassion Fatigue in the ER and Beyond?

Compassion fatigue is not unique to any one medical specialty; however, it is commonly seen in high-stress specialties where patients are normally sicker and in a more critical condition. In a study of ED nurses (Borges 2019), compassion fatigue was more prevalent in women and decreased with the increasing age of the nurse. Reasons for these trends were that women were more likely to experience their patients’ pain compared to men, and older nurses were more equipped to handle stressful situations compared to younger nurses. Gribben et al. (2019) looked at compassion fatigue in pediatric emergency medicine physicians and found burnout was the highest predicting factor in developing compassion fatigue. Interestingly, this group’s prevalence of compassion fatigue was lower compared to other pediatric specialties that followed patients longitudinally. This may suggest that the greater the relationship with the patient, the greater the impact of developing compassion fatigue; however, only one of the few papers suggested this relationship. In another study. Hooper et al. (2010), assessed compassion fatigue across multiple specialties (nephrology, oncology, intensive care, emergency medicine), and found no significant difference in compassion fatigue among these groups. While there was no statistically significant difference in compassion fatigue in this study, 82% of ER nurses reported moderate to high burnout levels, and 85% of ER nurses reported high levels of compassion fatigue.

Moreover, certain specialties were more likely to report a different adverse experience related to the job. For example, burnout was higher in intensive care doctors, compassion fatigue was higher in oncologists, and healthcare providers in the ER were more likely to report less compassion satisfaction and the pleasure of doing work. Currently, compassion fatigue is becoming a major concern in the era of COVID-19. Ruiz et al. looked at compassion fatigue, burnout, and compassion satisfaction in Spain’s healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this study, physicians reported higher compassion fatigue and burnout scores compared to nurses, who reported higher compassion satisfaction scores, despite reporting similar perceived stress. One explanation for compassion satisfaction in the nurses were their perceived importance during the pandemic.

Model of Compassion Fatigue

Since compassion fatigue is prevalent in medicine, it is important to understand some of the theories behind compassion fatigue and what causes it. Cocker and Joss (2016) provide one example of a model on compassion fatigue.

Model of Compassion Fatigue
Figure 2: Compassion Fatigue Model adapted from Cocker and Joss

This model encompasses many of the concepts cited in the literature regarding compassion fatigue, such as burnout, secondary trauma and compassion satisfaction. Although compassion fatigue is one definition, it is important to fully understand the concepts used in the model by Cocker and Joss (2016), to better our understanding of what compassion fatigue is and it relates to other variables encountered in the healthcare field. Compassion fatigue is the emotional and physical exhaustion, leading to an inability to feel compassion or empathize with another. Compassion Satisfaction is the amount of pleasure derived from being able to do work. Burnout occurs when an individual cannot reach their goals, leading to frustration, loss of morale, and decreased willful efforts. Finally, secondary traumatic stress arises from a rescue-caretaking response and occurs when an individual cannot rescue or save someone from harm, resulting in significant guilt and distress. Compassion fatigue can be caused when there is increased burnout or exposure to secondary trauma. While stressors can be part of the medical career, especially in the ED, compassion fatigue does not always need to become a consequence. Compassion satisfaction can act as a mediator, thus counteracting the negative effects of burnout and secondary trauma. One mechanism for the beneficial role of compassion satisfaction is its importance for building resiliency and transforming negative experiences to positive experiences.

How to Notice and Manage Compassion Fatigue

Given the impact of compassion fatigue on a physician and their ability to care for a patient, it is important to recognize and prevent the development of compassion fatigue. Some studies (Peters et. Al, 2018) acknowledge the need for education on compassion fatigue and suggest that this needs to be implemented at the individual and institutional level. Moreover, it is essential to note that many health professionals are not aware of compassion fatigue (Berg et. Al, 2016). Two inventories which have been used to assess for compassion fatigue in the literature include the Professional Quality of Life Scale and the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory. Berg describes that while most health professionals have their own individualized ways of dealing with stress, none of the healthcare providers interviewed in his study reported receiving any training in compassion fatigue. Berg mentions that group coping and debrief sessions can be useful strategies to prevent compassion fatigue (Berg et al., 2016; Schmidt et al., 2017). Finally, other institutional strategies may include identifying employees at high risk of compassion fatigue, provision of training to identify and cope with compassion fatigue, the use of workshops to promote self-care and other measures, such as open dialogue, to validate compassion fatigue and the risk it poses to healthcare provider wellbeing (Smith, 2012).

Closing Remarks

Compassion Fatigue is real, and often insidious in the presentation. Unfortunately, the concept of compassion fatigue is not always known, and at times its presence among ourselves and our colleagues can be challenging to identify. I believe that this is a concept which must be discussed, especially with the growing demands on healthcare providers and increasing stress during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sometimes caring can have negative impacts on healthcare providers. So begs the question, who takes care of healthcare providers while they are caring for others. We are not immune to the stress that comes with our job. Importantly, we must find ways to identify and support one another to not diminish our ability to care.

Cite this article as: Brenda Varriano, Canada, "Compassion Fatigue in the ER and Beyond: When caring leads to an inability to care," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, February 17, 2021,, date accessed: September 27, 2023

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References and Further Reading

  • Berg, G. M., Harshbarger, J. L., Ahlers-Schmidt, C. R., & Lippoldt, D. (2016). Exposing Compassion Fatigue and Burnout Syndrome in a Trauma Team: A Qualitative Study. Journal of trauma nursing : the official journal of the Society of Trauma Nurses, 23(1), 3–10.
  • Borges, E., Fonseca, C., Baptista, P., Queirós, C., Baldonedo-Mosteiro, M., & Mosteiro-Diaz, M. P. (2019). Compassion fatigue among nurses working on an adult emergency and urgent care unit. Fadiga por compaixão em enfermeiros de urgência e emergência hospitalar de adultos. Revista latino-americana de enfermagem, 27, e3175.
  • Cocker, F., & Joss, N. (2016). Compassion Fatigue among Healthcare, Emergency and Community Service Workers: A Systematic Review. International journal of environmental research and public health, 13(6), 618.
  • Gribben, J. L., MacLean, S. A., Pour, T., Waldman, E. D., & Weintraub, A. S. (2019). A Cross-sectional Analysis of Compassion Fatigue, Burnout, and Compassion Satisfaction in Pediatric Emergency Medicine Physicians in the United States. Academic emergency medicine : official journal of the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine, 26(7), 732–743.
  • Hooper, C., Craig, J., Janvrin, D. R., Wetsel, M. A., & Reimels, E. (2010). Compassion satisfaction, burnout, and compassion fatigue among emergency nurses compared with nurses in other selected inpatient specialties. Journal of emergency nursing, 36(5), 420–427.
  • Peters E. (2018). Compassion fatigue in nursing: A concept analysis. Nursing forum, 53(4), 466–480.
  • Ruiz-Fernández, M. D., Ramos-Pichardo, J. D., Ibáñez-Masero, O., Cabrera-Troya, J., Carmona-Rega, M. I., & Ortega-Galán, Á. M. (2020). Compassion fatigue, burnout, compassion satisfaction and perceived stress in healthcare professionals during the COVID-19 health crisis in Spain. Journal of clinical nursing, 29(21-22), 4321–4330.
  • Schmidt, M., & Haglund, K. (2017). Debrief in Emergency Departments to Improve Compassion Fatigue and Promote Resiliency. Journal of trauma nursing : the official journal of the Society of Trauma Nurses, 24(5), 317–322.
  • Smith, P. (2012a) Alleviating compassion fatigue before it drags down productivity [PDF]. Long Term Living.

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