It can start with fatigue, an exhaustion so crippling the sufferer has trouble functioning and which no amount of sleep will cure.

That's how Wendy Austin describes compassion fatigue, an affliction that she says affects health care professionals across the country.

Austin, a registered nurse and professor emerita at the University of Alberta, has studied the problem and her research has been published in the book Lying Down in the Ever-Falling Snow: Canadian Health Professionals' Experience of Compassion Fatigue

National conference in Charlottetown

Austin, in Charlottetown for a national conference that brings together nurses, researchers and students, says compassion fatigue can be compared to hypothermia, "in the sense that, the person doesn't realize what's happening to them ... it's often someone with them that will figure it out. It affects their judgement."

'I think we're going to lose some of our best practitioners if we don't watch this.' - Wendy Austin, registered nurse  

The drive for efficiencies in the health care system can have an impact on staffing, making it difficult for those who work with patients in crisis, as well as their families, have adequate time to regroup and recover before more on to the next patient.

PE-hi-Wendy-Austin

Wendy Austin, a researcher in the field of health care workers and compassion, says compassion fatigue is a growing problem across the country. (CBC)

"We had people in one study tell us that they've had no time after a patient death, for example. Within three minutes [of a death occurring] the bed has another patient in it," said Austin.

No time for emotions

When this keeps happening again and again, said Austin, the nurses and other health care workers have no time to reflect or deal with their emotions.

"Compassion, actually, the word literally means 'with suffering,' so how do you do that well so you can sustain it and go on to the next person?" 

Austin says she and her researchers are exploring ways to prevent compassion fatigue from taking hold, because once it does, some people choose to leave the medical profession.

"It's a fairly serious phenomenon in the sense that we don't want people to think that being a compassionate health care professional is risky for your health. We don't want some of the best practitioners leaving their jobs," Austin said.

Find time to debrief

One way of helping, Austin suggests, is to allow time for something such as a debriefing period after a patient dies. She said it's important to ensure there is enough staff to allow for that to happen. 

Health care workers need time to process and reflect after especially difficult situations. In order to provide the best care and support for their patients, Austin says professionals need support, too.

"I think we're going to lose some of our best practitioners if we don't watch this."

With files from Compass