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Want to be a better caregiver? Grow your compassion.

A few years ago, I stumbled on a Tedx talk called “How 40 Seconds of Compassion Could Save a Life”. If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you stop reading and watch it. In his talk, Dr. Trzeciak (an intensive care physician) talks about his research proving that compassion can make a significant difference in patient outcomes. As a nurse, I’ve had that sense my whole career. When you’ve been working in healthcare for a while, you notice you work with people who are better at it than others… and you see how patients respond to varying degrees of compassion coming from the caregiver.

One would think (or hope) that being compassionate nurses, doctors, and caregivers is just part of the job. I mean, who gets into this line of work and doesn’t care about people, right?!? Well not all caregivers are created equal and taking a job where providing care is your primary focus does not mean you have compassion. In fact, health care has an incredibly high burnout rate and it’s easy for even the most compassionate provider to get calloused feeling overworked and underappreciated.

It’s not just with the patients, caregivers aren’t even all that compassionate to each other.

I’ll never forget a formative interaction with a nurse early in my career when I was working as a nurse aide. I’d been at it about a year, and I had made friends with a resident who lived on the other side of the building from where I worked. A couple days a week I’d clock out after my shift and go to her room for about 30 minutes to listen to stories about her life. The day she died, I was at work and one of her caregivers came over to my unit to tell me. I took my lunch break and went down to see her. When I saw her, I broke down and went to the breakroom. It was the first time in my life I’d ever cried when someone died. My charge nurse walked through the breakroom, asked why I was crying and said- “We all have our favorites. Get yourself together and get back to work.” Wow did that hurt. But I did it, I went back to work and took away a valuable lesson about how I didn’t want to show up as a caregiver.

The nurse who shamed me for caring that day had amazing clinical skills as a nurse and I learned so much working with her. Her assessment skills were better than mine have ever been, and I had such respect for that, but the important thing she was lacking in all her interactions was compassion. In fact, I remember times she called me into rooms to help her with treatments because her patients didn’t listen to her, but they would listen to me. They followed my directions because I listened to them, and they felt heard and cared for. At the time, I had a sense for it but no idea of the enormity of the difference compassion can make.

It’s mind-blowing that showing 40 seconds of compassion for a patient could have so many positive impacts on the patient AND the caregiver. Dr. Trzeciak wrote a whole book (Compassionomics | Evidence That Caring Makes a Difference) about it filled with study after study showing what seems like endless benefits. Compassionate caregivers have lower burnout rates, are healthier, less likelihood of making major medical errors, have higher patient compliance, and their patients can experience less pain. Compassion can even lessen the effects of a cold and compassion connects us.

That’s incredible news BUT it gets better. It turns out compassion can be learned. That means you don’t have to be born with it; you can grow it. According to Dr. Kristen Neff’s research out of Austin, this cultivation starts with self-compassion. The 3-components of self-compassion are self-kindness, common humanity (connectedness), and mindfulness.

Compassion as a caregiver can be as or more important than some technical skills. For that reason, we’ve built activities into our courses that help cultivate compassion with practices of kindness, gratitude, optimism, and mindfulness. Our hope is that those completing our training are not only competent caregivers but also more compassionate ones. Caregiving is not only a science but also an art.

We know that as a caregiver, it’s easy for us to focus on caring for others so much that we forget to care for ourselves. Sometimes we even think it’s being selfish to think about our own well-being. Well, the data is in, and it turns out it benefits our patients and ourselves. Want to be a better caregiver? Start with increasing your compassion for yourself. Remember, you’re doing your best.

~Patricia Graham MSN, RN, CNE

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