You’ve seen it in headlines everywhere: health workers are being stretched thin and suffering from burnout, and complications from the coronavirus pandemic have made it exponentially worse for them.
Annabelle Nagy observed that trend and, as president of the nursing Class of 2022, decided last spring she wanted to drill down into what was causing it for her Westover Honors senior project. A key part of that phenomenon she decided to focus on was compassion fatigue, especially among pediatric care nurses.
In her research, Nagy, who’s minoring in health promotion, reviewed interventions health systems have tried to help their nurses and found that the most effective ones addressed both physical and emotional health factors. Those tactics could include providing nurses with fitness tech to support their physical health and giving them more time away from patients’ bedsides during time off or time between shifts for emotional breaks.
“If you’re just overworked and working these long shifts, then if you keep going back and seeing the same very sick patients, it just kind of really builds up,” she said.
Some programs made an impact starting at the literacy level: teaching new nurses about compassion fatigue and burnout during onboarding, or providing in-service trainings on a regular basis. One study Nagy came across included setting up a respite room for practitioners to use for decompression after traumatic shifts or just to get a moment alone.
She found that organizations are trying to set up programs that’ll create lasting positive impacts and work on versatile units — it’s just a matter of finding what methods are best.
At first, she wanted to study how compassion fatigue can affect workplace safety, mentioning the recent case of a nurse who’s been criminally convicted of negligent homicide from a medical mistake. But finding research on that proved to be impossible, so she had to change direction.
The research Nagy did find on compassion fatigue and burnout was pretty recent, despite compassion fatigue having always been a part of nursing, she said.
“I think just with Covid and the light that’s being shined on nursing right now, I think that’s when it’s really come into play and it’s become a bigger issue,” she said.
Literature Nagy reviewed recommend strong social support networks as a safeguard against compassion fatigue, which could come in the form of briefings after shifts or nurses giving their loved ones a bit of insight to have a better understanding of their work and struggles.
But there were some limits, too. She said she wished there were more longitudinal studies that examined impacts of interventions six months to a year down the road. And not every study was structured the same way, which posed something of an obstacle in pulling them together for conclusions.
“They found that even despite the really positive attitudes … after the initial program was finished … [the benefits] just kinda diminished and it went back to high burnout and high compassion fatigue scores,” she said. “So as great as they are, they’re not really lasting and giving those lasting effects that you would hope that they would.”
Naturally, Nagy’s research imprinted on her the need for a supportive work environment after she graduates, one that’s attuned to the obstacle compassion fatigue poses.
“I think this project has helped me open my eyes to all the potential problems — but also solutions — that could be at a workplace,” she said.
She’s accepted a nursing position in North Carolina working on an orthopedic floor, treating post-surgery patients. During her job search, she said she was impressed by the unit’s sense of community and positive work culture.
Looking forward, she said she’s considered nurse practitioner school or becoming a teacher, along with any roles she could take supporting fellow nurses facing burnout.
As she puts it, “The future is open.”