An exploration of the experience of compassion fatigue in clinical oncology nurses

Beth Perry, Greg Toffner, Trish Merrick, Janice Dalton


Compassion fatigue (CF) is “debilitating weariness brought about by repetitive, empathic responses to the pain and suffering of others” (LaRowe, 2005, p. 21). The work performed by oncology nurses, and the experiences of the people they care for, place oncology nurses at high risk for CF (Pierce et al., 2007; Ferrell & Coyle, 2008). Thus oncology nurses were chosen as the study focus. This paper details a descriptive exploratory qualitative research study that investigated the experience of CF in Canadian clinical oncology registered nurses (RNs). A conceptual stress process model by Aneshensel, Pearlin, Mullan, Zarit, and Whitlatch (1995) that considers caregivers’ stress in four domains provided the study framework (see Figure 1). Nineteen study participants were recruited through an advertisement in the Canadian Oncology Nursing Journal (CONJ). The advertisement directed potential participants to a university-based online website developed for this study. Participants completed a questionnaire and wrote a narrative describing an experience with CF and submitted these through the secure research website. Data were analyzed thematically. Five themes include: defining CF, causes of CF, factors that worsen CF, factors that lessen CF, and outcomes of CF. Participants had limited knowledge about CF, about lack of external support, and that insufficient time to provide high quality, care may precipitate CF. The gap between quality of care nurses wanted to provide and what they were able to do, compounded by coexisting physical and emotional stress, worsened CF. CF was lessened by colleague support, work-life balance, connecting with others, acknowledgement, and maturity and experience. Outcomes of CF included profound fatigue of mind and body, negative effects on personal relationships, and considering leaving the specialty. Recommendations that may enhance oncology nurse well-being are provided.

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