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Overcoming Burnout and Compassion Fatigue with Self-Care

As a nurse in long-term care, sometimes you can get so caught up in caring for others that you forget to care for yourself. This often leads to burnout, which can lead to compassion fatigue and can leave you wondering how to keep going. However, there is a lot that you can do!

Let’s take a look at some situations that can lead to burnout and compassion fatigue, what symptoms you need to recognize to know that you are experiencing these two debilitating stress-related conditions, and then we’ll discuss some ways that you can practice self-care, which not only attributes to better care for yourself, but also can help you provide better care for your residents and your fellow nurses.

Do you identify with any of the following?

  1. I consistently work long hours, skip breaks, and pick up shifts on my days off
  2. I form close relationships with my residents
  3. I’ve experienced a traumatic event while caregiving that triggers unpleasant emotions
  4. I often deal with rudeness or incivility when at work
  5. I put others’ needs ahead of my own and ignore caring for myself

If you answered yes to any of the above, please know you’re at risk for burnout and compassion fatigue.

What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is when you feel less compassion, or even indifference, or a sense of feeling numb toward others. You can have compassion fatigue and still care for others, but you may gradually feel yourself becoming more distant from your normal feelings of care and compassion.

Here is a list that describes some of the ways nurses feel when they have compassion fatigue:

  • Bored
  • Distant or detached from residents and coworkers
  • Irritable or frustrated, even rude or short-tempered
  • Feelings of failure
  • Tired, because of disrupted sleep and worrying about what wasn’t done
  • Forgetful

Physical symptoms will start or become worse if compassion fatigue continues and can include things like:

  • Mental and/or physical exhaustion
  • Headaches
  • Feeling sick or a sense of dread before work
  • More frequent illnesses and calling in

Did you know that one of the greatest risks for burnout and compassion fatigue is ignoring your own self-care?

Make Self-Care a Priority

It can be difficult to accept, but you deserve to care for yourself. Not only that, but your residents, your team, and your family also need you to focus on self-care. So how can you do that?

  • Take time off. This is a very important part of self-care, because it gives you time to step back from giving care and the stress you experience at work and allow your mind and body to rest, relax, and recharge. It can be difficult to take a vacation when so much is on your plate, but you deserve it and it can be done with the right pieces in place like having a back-up person to keep things running while you’re away, working ahead of schedule, and trying to plan for anything that could go wrong.
  • Take your breaks during your shift, because like a vacation, you need this time to give your mind and body a bit of a rest. Take a walk with a coworker, listen to music, or read something totally unrelated to work while on break. 
  • Eat in a way that feeds your body what it needs. As nurses, you know a lot of sugar and caffeine is just a trick to fake the body to keep going, but all tricks end and you pay the price. Don’t forget to eat a good breakfast and bring a healthy lunch. A healthy body with good nourishment is more likely to provide better care, have more energy, and get sick less often.
  • Take some time to restart a hobby or activity you used to enjoy. You probably quit doing it, but now you’ve taken away the thing that gave you happiness and left yourself with an unfulfilling routine of work and crash, then work and crash. You need something to fill yourself back up, not just give and give. Take some time to rediscover what makes you happy outside of work.
  • Use your Employee Assistant Program (EAP) and talk to someone who can give you strategies to work through the emotions you’re feeling. If you don’t have access to an EAP program or access to a counselor who can help with burnout and fatigue, seek out alternatives. Download a mindfulness and meditation app. There are also some great books out there that can help with self-care too.
  • Consider fitness classes. Exercise has multiple benefits to help manage stress and release happy endorphins. 
  • Sleep is critical to health. Make sure you are getting adequate sleep each night so that you are recharged for the morning. Also, you may want to look into personal health monitors like Fit Bit or Apple Watch which are starting to include sleep monitors in their features to give you data to help improve your sleep.
  • Before you leave work, do something that allows you to leave on a positive note. Maybe it’s holding the hand of a resident and saying goodnight to them or listening to advice they share with you about life. Maybe there is an employee you’ve been mentoring, and they accomplished a goal – do something to praise their success. Whatever it is, always leave on a good note. 
  • Set a time limit on thinking about work. On your way home, allow yourself to think about the day you’ve had until you get to a certain spot in your commute. Maybe you have a 30 minute drive, so for 10 minutes, think about your day and then when you pass a certain exit, you know it’s time to switch to thinking about family time, your hobby, or just listen to some music and relax and clear your mind.

When you care for yourself, you are better prepared to care for others. Take time each day to practice self-care. You can do this, and you deserve it!


  1. Thank you for a great article. With the prolonged quarantine because of COVID-19, and the hurdles LTC staff face – your article is a great reminder of the importance of self-care. I plan to share this with my staff. Thanks again.

    Julie Helling
  2. Sometimes you do get the feeling of self-compassion and burnout, and you are just bored. And as you said, self-care really helps with it. These are some amazing points. Though I also think you should know the signs of burnout so that you know it’s time to take care of yourself.


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