BACKGROUND: Working in the stressful environment of the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) is an emotionally charged challenge that might affect the emotional stability of medical staff. The quality of care for ICU patients and their relatives might be threatened through long-term absenteeism or a brain and skill drain if the healthcare professionals leave their jobs prematurely in order to preserve their own health. PURPOSE: The purpose of this review is to evaluate the literature related to emotional distress among healthcare professionals in the ICU, with an emphasis on the prevalence of burnout and compassion fatigue and the available preventive strategies. METHODS: A systematic literature review was conducted, using Embase, Medline OvidSP, Cinahl, Web-of-science, PsychINFO, PubMed publisher, Cochrane and Google Scholar for articles published between 1992 and June, 2014. Studies reporting the prevalence of burnout, compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress and vicarious trauma in ICU healthcare professionals were included, as well as related intervention studies. RESULTS: Forty of the 1623 identified publications, which included 14,770 respondents, met the selection criteria. Two studies reported the prevalence of compassion fatigue as 7.3% and 40%; five studies described the prevalence of secondary traumatic stress ranging from 0% to 38.5%. The reported prevalence of burnout in the ICU varied from 0% to 70.1%. A wide range of intervention strategies emerged from the recent literature search, such as different intensivist work schedules, educational programs on coping with emotional distress, improving communication skills, and relaxation methods. CONCLUSIONS: The true prevalence of burnout, compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress and vicarious trauma in ICU healthcare professionals remains open for discussion. A thorough exploration of emotional distress in relation to communication skills, ethical rounds, and mindfulness might provide an appropriate starting point for the development of further preventive strategies.