Songs for the Soul helps address compassion fatigue in nursing

Carolyn Phillips, PhD, RN, ACNP-BC, AOCNP, said she loved the meaningful work she did as an oncology nurse and nurse practitioner.

But that love and devotion came at a cost to Phillips’ well-being. She, like many other nurses, had no time or way to process the grief she felt. She was emotionally numb and in a perpetual state of grief.

“I needed to experience a form of expression that would resonate deep enough that I could start to feel again. I needed to ‘sing it out,’” Phillips wrote on her Songs for the Soul website, a nonprofit organization she co-founded to help those experiencing similar struggles with compassion fatigue in nursing.

Carolyn Phillips, PhD, RN, ACNP-BC, AOCNP

Some describe compassion fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress, as the cost of caring. It can lead to emotional pain, exhaustion and burnout, according to Phillips.

Healthcare professionals — nurses, in particular — don’t have a way to process the emotions they experience when caring for others, Phillips said.

“It’s something we really don’t talk about. We’re not taught much about it in our formal education and once we get in the workplace, there’s really no time or space or even programs available that help us reflect on the impact that caregiving has on nurses and their well-being,” she said.

The grief can build, especially in specialties such as oncology, where nurses often experience loss with patients and families they have known for years.

Phillips co-authored a study looking at oncology nurses’ roller coaster ride of emotional experiences in caring for patients and families.

In the study published July 29, 2019, in the journal Cancer Nursing, the authors found “new nurses are underprepared for the emotional experience of being an oncology nurse. Further, they define their emotional boundaries in isolation and without guidance on how to develop healthy coping skills. Changing the culture of silence around mental health and well-being among healthcare professionals can provide space for important conversations to occur.”

Songs for the Soul aims to provide nurses with an outlet and opportunity for expression by giving them a platform to write about the people for whom they have cared. The program helps nurses put their emotions into words. Then, Phillips pairs nurses in the intervention with songwriters, who put their stories into songs.

Nurses share their stories as part of the intervention and begin to realize they are not alone in the struggle to come to terms with emotions they feel from providing care, according to Phillips, who knows the power of music well. She is a member of a band called Hardened and Tempered.

Research on interventions for compassion fatigue in nursing

Phillips, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Future of Nursing Scholar from 2016 to 2019, set out three years ago to study whether combining writing and music would help nurses.

She did a pilot study of seven nurses. They met weekly for six weeks, learning how to write about their experiences and crafting personal short stories.

Phillips brought in a team of songwriters who …read more

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