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Why Trust is the Solution to Compassion Fatigue for Healthcare Workers

Kristen McCammon  

Blog - Kristen McCammon - June 23, 2017

Why Trust is the Solution to Compassion Fatigue for Healthcare Workers

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Creative practices like "Code Lavender" can save employees who are at risk of burnout

 

For most of us, going to the hospital can be stressful.  That’s why a nurse or technician who goes above and beyond to make you feel comfortable can have such a positive impact on your experience.

Hospital staff have the unique opportunity to influence patients’ experience by providing an extra level of care and compassion. For many healthcare workers, this is exactly what makes their work meaningful and drives them to be better at their jobs every day. But it also comes with a price.

Enter: compassion fatigue.  Compassion fatigue is the point at which a healthcare worker expends more energy in the form of compassion than he or she can build up internally. In other words, the employee experiences burnout. 

Compassion fatigue happens when frontline healthcare staff spend consecutive hours and days working with patients in stressful environments.  Unless they replenish their own energy reserves, healthcare workers can lose the ability to give the level of care and compassion that patients need.  At best, healthcare workers suffering from compassion fatigue are weary and unenthusiastic. At worst, they’re apathetic and prone to making mistakes on the job. Or they’re considering leaving their jobs.

Obviously, hospitals want to avoid compassion fatigue at all costs. But what can they do?

The answer lies in building a culture based on trust. Through Great Place to Work’s work with many large healthcare systems, I’ve found that a high-trust culture helps prevent compassion fatigue by supporting the emotional health of workers in a variety of ways.

First, hospital leaders and peers in a trusting environment are attuned to their colleagues’ physical and emotional health and know when to step in to support.  This makes intuitive sense – when you trust someone, you’re more likely to open-up and share how you’re feeling. Others know you better and you feel comfortable asking for help when you need it.

When there’s trust between front-line workers and hospital management, those positive effects multiply. An open and honest line of communication with management means leaders have a better sense of the resources and training employees need to perform their jobs well and minimize stress. And, in an ever-changing industry, a culture of transparency lets leaders better navigate organizational change and monitor how staff is doing. And lastly, a high-trust culture usually means better work-life balance; leaders are more likely to encourage work-life balance among staff, and staff feel comfortable asking for time when they need it, ensuring they can replenish their internal energy reserves.

Hospitals that do this well usually have some creative strategies and programs in place. One strategy is known as “Code Lavender.”  In this program, hospital staff may report a Code Lavender to signal seriously high levels of emotional fatigue for themselves or their colleagues.  When a staff member reports a Code Lavender, a team of holistic specialists provide the staff member with a variety of therapies and wellness services. After reporting a Code Lavender, the individual wears a lavender bracelet to remind themselves and those around them to take things easy until their energy levels are restored. 

Working in a hospital is a physically and emotionally demanding job. Many healthcare workers are committed and happy to be doing something that feels like more than “just a job.” But they also may sometimes need extra emotional support to make sure they can provide the very best patient care without burning out. We’ve seen that when hospitals work towards building a culture of trust they see huge rewards – including half the industry average voluntary turnover rate of 20% and HCAHPS scores several points above average. In other words, in a high-trust culture everyone wins.

Kristen McCammon
Kristen McCammon

Kristen McCammon is a Client Insights Manager, Lead at Great Place to Work.  She received her Master’s in Positive Organizational Psychology and Evaluation from Claremont Graduate University.