Research

Nurses unable to forgive abusive patients suffer ‘compassion fatigue’

24 Oct 2019 By Siobhan Palmer

A London School of Economics study discovered that healthcare workers who experience aggressive behaviour are less able to process their experiences

Researchers at the London School of Economics have found that nurses who experience high levels of abuse at the hands of patients can act unethically or neglectfully, because they don’t have the chance to forgive those involved. 

Staff who need to show compassion and empathy consistently in their job suffer ‘compassion fatigue’, and lack the energy to forgive individuals who victimise or abuse them. Focus group interviews revealed that nurses experience aggressive behaviours from swearing and insults to spitting and biting in varying degrees of frequency.  

A survey of unionised nurses in the US showed that those who experienced the most frequent incidences of patient aggression were less able to forgive the perpetrators, and their emotional wellbeing suffered. Researchers also controlled for characteristics such as neuroticism and agreeableness among the respondents, which might affect how likely a person is to be forgiving. 

However, the study found that staff were more able to forgive patients, and therefore carry out their duties fully, if managers introduced small changes to allow them to process their experiences. The opportunity to swap responsibilities following an abusive encounter, and access to quiet break areas, individual consultations and pens and paper all allowed nurses to deal with aggressive situations more effectively. 

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