Compassion Fatigue Vs. Burnout in Nursing

What is the difference between compassion fatigue and burnout in the nursing profession? 

Why are compassion fatigue and burnout on the rise in nursing? 


Pressure from the COVID-19 pandemic pushed hospitals’ institutional systems to a breaking point in recent years. More than ever, healthcare staff is feeling undervalued, struggling with mental health, burnout, and compassion fatigue, resulting in many nurses leaving the profession or transferring to outpatient care. Due to these growing problems, hospitals are failing to retain employees and turnover is rising steadily, which only exacerbates the issue. NSI Nursing Solutions reported that RNs exited the bedside at an alarming rate last year, and hospitals shed 2.47% of their RN workforce. This means that the turnover rate for staff RNs increased by 8.4% and currently stands at 27.1%. Registered nurses in surgical services, women’s health, and pediatrics recorded the lowest turnover rate, while nurses in step-down, telemetry, and emergency services experienced the highest. With severe staffing shortages, nurses are now often forced to work overtime and take on more patients at a time, making their work life more stressful and exhausting. 

So, what is the difference between compassion fatigue and burnout in nursing?

First, let’s talk about burnout. Burnout happens when nurses continuously feel emotionally exhausted, full of self-doubt, and cynical toward their patients and fellow health care workers. Diminished feelings of personal accomplishment are also characteristic of nurse burnout. Factors that increase the chances of burnout include an imbalance in workload, excessive work hours that can easily lead to physical and mental fatigue, lack of control, and inadequate compensation. 

Signs of burnout:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety and panic
  • A sense of dread about going to work
  • Lack of joy on the job
  • Regularly arriving to work late
  • Taking excessive sick days
  • Resisting workplace changes
  • Withdrawing from social activities at work
  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches
  • Disrupted sleep and insomnia
  • Body aches

In comparison, compassion fatigue is the gradual erosion of empathy characteristics that disrupts the patient-nurse dynamic. When nurses lack empathy, their ability to communicate with patients suffers. Numerous studies have established that empathy in healthcare is essential in achieving optimal health outcomes. Empathetic nurses better understand patients’ feelings and opinions, enabling them to conduct accurate assessments and design treatment plans that improve patient health.

Common signs of compassion fatigue include physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms. The condition not only diminishes self-worth but also creates feelings of numbness. As a result, it can cause nurses to isolate themselves, neglect friendships, experience severe mood swings, develop pessimistic attitudes and disconnect from peers at work.

Physical symptoms of compassion fatigue:

  • Headaches
  • Digestive problems
  • Sleep problems
  • Muscle aches
  • Heart problems

In conclusion, the main difference is that repeated exposure to trauma that leads to compassion fatigue often alters a nurse’s ability to feel compassion. However, burnout doesn’t. Although burnout does lead nurses to depersonalize their patients, it doesn’t necessarily interfere with their ability to connect with people in other relationships. A stressful, hostile work environment causes burnout, whereas the impact of caring for others causes compassion fatigue. The consequences of both burnout and compassion fatigue within the healthcare industry don’t just affect the lives of nurses but also increase the risk of mistakes and decrease the quality of patient care. 

Research suggests that increased institutional support from management for individual nurses and better workload balance is critical in addressing compassion fatigue and burnout. Rift Valley’s goal is to help employees communicate effectively and transparently with managers. Our software monitors staff’s individual level of burnout and tracks which pain points exacerbate it. Managers will be provided with this data analytics, allowing them to keep a continuous pulse on nurse engagement and better address employee needs.