Do nurses who dehumanise their patients have less stress?

Here’s a disturbing study from Italy suggesting that dedicated nurses who dehumanise their patients and themselves suffer less stress. That’s contrary to our belief that practising with compassion can protect you from burnout. What do you think?

Here’s what the study claims:

Elena Trifeletti and her colleagues surveyed 108 nurses (54 men; age range 31 to 50). The nurses answered questions about their experience of stress. They also rated how much patients and nurses exhibit various traits. Some of these were uniquely human (e.g. morality; reasoning), and others were traits usually considered relevant to humans and animals (e.g. instinct, impulsiveness).

Nurses who viewed their patients as less human (in terms of attributing to them fewer uniquely human traits, and more shared human/animal traits) reported experiencing less stress. This was especially true for nurses who were more emotionally attached to their employer, the hospital, and to their patients. This sounds like a contradiction, but Trifiletti and her team explained that it is precisely those nurses who are more devoted to their work and their patients, who likely need to use the strategy of dehumanisation to cope with the stress of their work.

We question the methodology in terms of assessing traits as “human” and “human/animal” and wonder how that relates to the components of compassion such as empathy, sympathy, sensitivity and non-judgment. In our experience, we know of many deeply compassionate and humane practitioners who flourish in a stressful environment by deriving deep meaning and satisfaction from the human connection with patients. so we disagree with the study conclusions.

De-personalisation is one of the dimensions of burnout (together with emotional exhaustion and loss of personal efficacy). So maybe the early stages of burnout are an adaptive response that temporarily reduces stress but has longterm harmful consequences?

What do you think?

Read more about the study…


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