Compassion fatigue takes its toll

November 1, 2020

Finding strategies to cope with workplace stress and burnout is important as the effects of COVID-19 continue to be felt in aged care.

Natalie Seymour
Natalie Seymour

Why do we all feel so tired? The reason is simple – COVID-19 has had a profound impact on nurses and care staff working in older persons’ care.


Providing care to one of our most vulnerable populations has always been a privilege, amid a complex and challenging environment. Staff build close working relationships with their patients or residents and their families. These relationships can become emotionally taxing.


Add in a COVID-19 pandemic and it’s all hands on deck, among radically changing policies and clinical care requirements – all of which must be communicated with residents, families and staff, and adopted into daily practice.

In the absence of visitors, staff also stepped up to become pseudo families. Already working in a sector with inadequate resources, nurses and other staff had to increase their care and support with even less backup in a fast-changing environment. At times, this resulted in compassion fatigue.

No group or region spared

It’s now eight months down the track from the first COVID-19 outbreak and things are returning to our new normal. Compassion fatigue has become a term used daily and the impacts of the pandemic are being felt far and wide. It has not spared any particular group, facility or region as we all come to terms with how our sector has changed.


The experience of COVID-19 has led to increasingly trusting relationships between staff, residents and their loved ones. However, the compassion fatigue manifesting in aged care has resulted in higher than usual sick leave, high staff turnover, burnout, job dissatisfaction and increased use of occupational counselling programmes.

The most important step is to assess the stressors in your life, both at work and at home.

When a phenomenon like a pandemic occurs, we see a higher level of resilience being adopted by those doing the caring as a means of self-protection. While this can help carers protect themselves, it also risks an erosion of compassion.

For nurses providing aged care, leading teams and supporting other disciplines, it is important that compassion fatigue symptoms are recognised, acknowledged and addressed. 1 Signs can vary between individuals and can include cognitive, emotional, spiritual, interpersonal and behavioural manifestations. These can be demonstrated in various ways – staff having a decreased level of concern about patients or residents, loss of or reduced empathy, physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion, dissatisfaction with their role or job or even considering leaving the profession entirely. It’s okay not to be feeling okay.

Nurses and other professions caring for older people, especially as they age themselves, tend to feel deep empathy and sympathy when residents experience loss, loneliness, illness and trauma. Nurses have an ingrained desire to remove the cause and to bring healing to those who are suffering.

As a profession, we are having to adjust how we take stock of our own emotions, so we can recognise our triggers. We talk about the importance of self-care, but have not always been so good at implementing it into our daily work and home lives. Identifying our own triggers and finding strategies will help us support our colleagues to do the same.

The most important step is to assess the stressors in your life, both at work and at home. Acknowledge the skills of your colleagues and delegate tasks accordingly and appropriately to create a better balance for both yourself and your colleagues. Allow yourself to rebalance your work life and make sure you have time to yourself during your day. The more that colleagues and managers understand our specific concerns at work and at home, the sooner and better they are placed to support us with those concerns.


Natalie Seymour, RN, BN, is service manager at Nurse Maude Memorial Hospital in Christchurch. She was appointed chair of NZNO’s college of gerontology nursing last month.


  1. Huggard, P. K. (2017). Caring for the carers: compassion fatigue and disenfranchised grief. Presented at the 2017 ANZCCART (Australian and New Zealand Council for the Care of Animals in Research and Teaching) conference, Rotorua.