‘Bed 1 is agitated – can you prescribe sedation?’ ‘We need 4 discharges today – what can you do?’ ‘There are 3 emergencies booked in after clinic -do you mind seeing?’.
Wherever you work in the NHS right now these phrases will be all too familiar. Have you noticed that the language doesn’t refer to people – just diseases, beds or extras?
Where has it all gone wrong? Too many patients, too many targets, not enough staff or resources. The shift of the NHS has moved away from individual patients and how we can help them best to payment mechanisms, disease pathways and how quickly we can get them out for the next one to come through.
Where does that leave us frontline staff that serve the NHS? The language for us has focused on resilience and avoiding burnout for self preservation purposes. Dr Charles Figley (1982) described secondary stress disorder or ‘compassion fatigue’ as ‘the cost of caring‘ for others in emotional and physical pain. Day after day of exposure can take its toll and in today’s NHS the pace is unforgiving.
Signs and Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue
· Reduced ability to feel sympathy and empathy
· Diminished job satisfaction
· Dread of working with certain patients
· Anger and Irritability
· Increased use of alcohol and drugs
Should this realisation have us running for the hills, leaving the NHS in droves? I would suggest not. The current environment is non-caring for us the carer-givers and that has obvious detrimental consequences for the cared-for. Compassion fatigue is normal. We need dedicated time to process our experiences and re-charge our ability to care for each of our patients no matter if they’re the first of the day or the last on a Friday. Caring for others is a given: it’s what we signed up for and it’s what brings us rewards beyond the pay packet, but caring for ourselves is the key to helping others. The first step is awareness.
3 steps to reduce compassion fatigue:
1. Recognise it in yourself.
2. Find an outlet to talk about it at work. This means dedicated time out with colleagues who are all dealing with the same stresses. Don’t lock yourself away in self-protective mode.
3. Find time for yourself to do a de-stressing activity e.g. Exercise, mindfulness, meditation
The NHS is at breaking point, but don’t let it be you who breaks first…