Is It Burnout Or Compassion Fatigue In Healthcare? And Why Is It Important?

Healthcare worker experiencing burnout and compassion fatigue

The burnout healthcare professionals are experiencing from the COVID-19 pandemic is staggering. Just look at the numbers. In September 2020, National Nurses United reported that there were more than 1700 healthcare worker deaths. Additionally, Medscape has been hosting an "In Memoriam" webpage that holds thousands of more names (and links to obituaries) of international healthcare workers who have died.

How are their healthcare colleagues doing as they continue to work on the front lines? Inundated.

Hospitals across the country face the perfect storm of challenges related to staffing, PPE, and bed availability, plus the stress behind making the best decisions about care. Dr. Lindsay Thompson from Johns Hopkins has researched the topic of moral stress extensively. Dr. Thompson defines moral stress as occurring when healthcare professionals care for terminally ill or traumatically injured patients or in situations where lack of facilities, time, supplies, expertise, or other resources constrain their ability to provide the care needed. When challenged with stressful decision-making and the lack of equipment needed to care for patients, moral stress can exacerbate compassion fatigue. The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project defines compassion fatigue as a broadly defined concept that can include emotional, physical, and spiritual distress in those providing care to another.

As a healthcare professional, it's one thing to say you feel "burnt out," but when you combine the perfect storm of burnout, moral stress, and compassion fatigue, the results can be more problematic—especially when adding the numbers involved. Considering the number of deaths (noted above) and the cost of retention—which is the cost to an organization whenever an experienced healthcare professional leaves their organization due to burnout, compassion fatigue, or illness—will illustrate some of the present challenges faced by the healthcare industry.

In her article "Revisiting Nurse Turnover Costs," published in The Journal of Nursing Administration, Carolyn Bland Jones, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, reports, "There is great variability in nurse turnover cost estimates, from approximately $22,000 to more than $64,000 per nurse." In his article, "What's The Economic Cost of Physician Burnout," published in Forbes Magazine in January 2020, Michael Blanding wrote, "Physician burnout costs the United States healthcare industry $4.6 billion a year."

Referring to these challenges as simply "burnout" when they affect your passion for your career, the patients and families you serve, the team you work alongside and the critical decisions you make on a daily basis during your shift, is not helpful. We need to have more in-depth conversations and stronger solutions.

Here Are Some Ideas For Those Solutions:

Healthcare workers avoiding feeling compassion fatigue


  1. Provide more comprehensive support and resources for all professionals working in fast-paced, high-stress healthcare environments.
  2. Once vaccines are approved, we can't just forget the stress and compassion fatigue our top-notch healthcare teams have experienced; it's essential to support and retain them.
  3. Referring to the stress teams are under as "burnout" instead of "compassion fatigue" or traumatic stress minimizes the perception of the degree of support needed to help teams cope.
  4. Every pharmaceutical company producing a vaccine should also provide information and resources to help healthcare professionals, first responders, patients, and families cope.
  5. COVID-19 websites should also have contact information and support to assist patients, families and providers.

Being a healthcare professional working on a COVID-19 unit is one of the most challenging careers in our country right now. It requires a very special person to know the abundant clinical knowledge needed to care for a patient while also having the immense compassion and empathy necessary to establish the kind of supportive relationship and trust needed to care for them. Imagine the last person you will ever speak with during your life—what is the conversation you would hope to have and who would you like to be having it with? Concurrently, who would you like to help you fight through your illness and assist you when you are strong enough to leave the hospital?

Healthcare professionals across the country need our support now more than ever. Don't just use the term "burnout" without really looking at the inner strength, immense potential, and talent these teams bring to the bedside.

S.A. Leys is a coach, consultant and career navigator at We provide coaching, consulting, and debriefing for the healthcare professionals and teams who care for all of us. Follow our hashtag #debriefyourteam on LinkedIn to receive information and strategies to assist your team with coping and retention strategies.