Self-preservation vs. empathy
Compassion fatigue or empathy fatigue is just one reaction to feeling completely maxed out and overstressed, Dr. Nelson says. Anger at society, such as what Dr. Erickson experienced, is another response.
Practitioners may also feel as if they are just going through the motions of their job, or they might disassociate, ceasing to feel that their patients are human. Plenty of doctors and nurses have cried in their cars after shifts and have posted tearful videos on social media.
Early in the pandemic, Dr. Masood says, physicians who called the support hotline expressed sadness and grief. Now, she had her colleagues hear frustration and anger, along with guilt and shame for having feelings they believe they shouldn’t be having, especially toward patients. They may feel unprofessional or worse – unworthy of being physicians, she says.
One recent caller to the hotline was a long-time ICU physician who had been told so many times by patients that ivermectin was the only medicine that would cure them that he began to doubt himself, says Dr. Masood. This caller needed to be reassured by another physician that he was doing the right thing.
Another emergency department physician told Dr. Masood about a young child who had arrived at the hospital with COVID-19 symptoms. When asked whether the family had been exposed to anyone with COVID-19, the child’s parent lied so that they could be triaged faster.
The physician, who needed to step away from the situation, reached out to Dr. Masood to express her frustration so that she wouldn’t “let it out” on the patient.
“It’s hard to have empathy for people who, for all intents and purposes, are very self-centered,” Dr. Masood says. “We’re at a place where we’re having to choose between self-preservation and empathy.”
How to cope
To help practitioners cope, Dr. Masood offers words that describe what they’re experiencing. She often hears clinicians say things such as, “This is a type of burnout that I feel to my bones,” or “This makes me want to quit,” or “I feel like I’m at the end of my rope.”
She encourages them to consider the terms “empathy fatigue,” and “moral injury” in order to reconcile how their sense of responsibility to take care of people is compromised by factors outside of their control.
It is not shameful to acknowledge that they experience emotions, including difficult ones such as frustration, anger, sadness, and anxiety, Dr. Masood adds.
Being frustrated with a patient doesn’t make someone a bad doctor, and admitting those emotions is the first step toward dealing with them, she says.
before they cause a sense of callousness or other consequences that become harder to heal from as time goes on.
“We’re trained to just go, go, go and sometimes not pause and check in,” she says. Clinicians who open up are likely to find they are not the only ones feeling tired or frustrated right now, she adds.
“Connect with peers and colleagues, because chances are, they can relate,” Dr. Nelson says.
A version of this article first appeared on.