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Is stress a bigger threat to nurses than physical injuries?

May 31, 2006 -- Today the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation site posted a short unsigned piece about the stress nurses experience. "Mental strain showing on nurses: union" reports that a new study by Brenda Sabo of Dalhousie University (Nova Scotia) describes the "compassion fatigue" that may afflict nurses after years of developing close caregiving relations with patients. That fatigue can undermine patient care. The piece also relies on Prince Edward Island Nurses' Union president Mary Duffy. She notes that in addition to compassion fatigue, the stress of chronic overwork has caused an increase in long-term disability claims by nurses. The piece is pretty short for such complex and important issues, but it is a helpful look at a serious problem.

Sabo (right) explains that compassion fatigue is a condition that nurses may experience as the stress of caring for patients builds up over time. Sabo notes that nurses (in the piece's words) "often forge relationships with patients, taking care of their needs over extended periods, and sometimes those patients die." The piece quotes Sabo as saying that this "therapeutic relationship" is "the foundation of nursing." But when nurses can no longer form such relationships, when they "distance [themselves] from others," it "could have a huge impact on [their] ability to provide care." The piece might have explored how that could affect patients, particularly since some might not understand how "compassion" could really affect outcomes. Perhaps such fatigued nurses would be less able to provide psychosocial support, to teach patients how to regain and maintain health, and even to focus on life-or-death technical tasks. On a more minor note, the piece might also have made clear that Sabo is a nursing professor.

The piece reports that union leader Duffy finds Sabo's research "very timely." Duffy notes that in addition to compassion fatigue, nurses also feel overworked, "wishing they could do more for their patients but having little time to do it during their shift." She says the stress has resulted in more long-term disability claims, and that this year more "health-care professionals" are basing long-term disability claims on "mental illnesses and psychiatric illnesses" than on "back injuries or work related injuries or muscle tears"--an astonishing statistic. Although the report notes that the union is looking at "what can be done to help nurses," it might have discussed that in a bit more detail. How much of this stress is an inevitable part of serious caregiving, and how much might be reduced through measures like better working conditions and counseling?

We thank the CBC for its report on this important topic.

See the report "Mental strain showing on nurses: union" on the CBC website from May 31, 2006.

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