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The Emotional Cost of Nursing

Keri Mucci, for HealthLeaders Media, July 7, 2009

Nurses cure the sick, heal the wounded, and comfort the dying, but are they doing so at their own cost?

Jenny Watts, researcher and psychology PhD student at the University of Leicester in Leicester, England aims to find out in a new project examining the emotional toll of nursing. The project, which follows a large scale methodical review of published literature Watts conducted last year, will explore how exposure to patient suffering and empathizing with patients influence nurses' experiences of distress.

"The [previous] review revealed certain nurse characteristics may predict a specific form of distress," says Watts. "There appear to be many moderating variables, but the literature suggested more empathetic nurses showed greater vulnerability to what had been labeled as burnout and secondary traumatic stress."

Watts' findings indicate nurses who empathize and identify with their patients can share patients' emotional reactions, thus nurses with highly distressed patients can develop similar symptoms. In addition, dealing with patients' concerns can lead to draining of emotional resources.

Such distress can significantly affect nurses' personal and professional lives, resulting in flashbacks of traumatic events, sleeping difficulty, emotional detachment, and increased feelings of work-related dissatisfaction.

"There is evidence that caring for others can have negative implications for their career, in terms of physical health and professional functioning. However, we need to determine a more precise understanding of nurse distress to enable suitable interventions," Watts says.

According to Watts, one of the major findings of her review implicates age is a predictive factor of distress. For instance, younger, less experienced nurses report greater distress.

"This project aims to test these apparent relationships and determine how much variance in distress—in the form of burnout, for example—can be determined by factors, such as empathy and social support," Watts says.

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