Many people believe that RN’s choose a nursing career because they’re naturally compassionate. Nurses don’t have to work at compassion, the story goes, compassion just comes naturally to them. That may be true, but the reality is that the daily stresses of working in the healthcare profession can eat away at your reserves of sympathy and patience until there’s just about nothing left. Intellectually you know that your patients are in pain, fearful, disoriented, feeling powerless and sometimes heavily medicated, but, but, but … why does caring for them feel so stressful?

When you get the feeling that if the patient in Room X pushes that call button one more time, you’re going to shoot right through the roof, what can you do? Are there strategies for building up your reserves of compassion? Not only for the next hour, but for the long term?

According to Michael Ortiz Hill, Registered Nurse, and the author of The Craft of Compassion at the Bedside of the Ill“, you can increase your stores of compassion — whether you feel like you’ve lost them for good, or never really had that much to begin with.  Mr. Hill’s book is a collection of essays by medical professionals, community leaders,  along with some of his own writing. He proposes that we must be compassionate toward ourselves before we can be compassionate for others, and advises us to draw on on elements of eastern and western philosophies that remind us that we’re all in this together.

A small but growing trend toward patient-centric care in hospitals would seem to support this strategy.  Planetree, a consultancy for  patient-centered healthcare providers recently recognized Fauquier Hospital in Virginia  for its innovative efforts, including staff retreats where physicians and nurses participate in role-switching exercises and play the part of patients.  The commitment to patient-centered care can reach into a wide variety of areas, from facility design to ensuring that managers enlist the input of staff on decisions that affect their work.  Healthcare employers who staff adequately (including travel nurses) know about the positive effects that nurse-patient ratios have on patient care. After all, it’s not only the patients who can feel powerless; that feeling of helplessness is one of the prime contributors to stress — and compassion deficit.

Compassion is a habit that can get stronger with practice.
So next time you’re about to lose it, remember:

  • to take a minute and breathe
  • to be kind to yourself, too. Travel nurses who are healthier, happier, and better-rested find it easier to care for others
  • sometimes the only thing that makes “us” different from “them” is a random twist of fate
  • everyone is on their own journey and you can only control what you can control
  • compassion is a mutually reinforcing cycle; when you show kindness to a patient or colleague — they’re more likely to be kind in return


Oh, and one last strategy: make time to laugh, and even the most stressful situation becomes more bearable. Prescription: take one of these medical cartoons and call us in the morning.