Compassion fatigue is a very serious type of emotional distress that also often affects veterinarians, vet techs and vet nurses. In this article, we outline the symptoms, help you spot if you may be at risk, and offer prevention guidelines.
“Are you a vet?” “Do you work in a veterinary clinic?” “That’s so cool!”
How many times have you had this kind of conversation?
But people are unaware of the B-side of the profession. It’s very hard not to be affected by the deaths that occur despite our efforts; the financial problems of clients that make it difficult to access treatments for their pets, the continuous care of chronically or incurably ill animals over long periods of time, or the emotional support of families in terminal phases and euthanasias.
It’s hard not to be affected by deaths, financial problems of clients, emotional support of families and the continuous care of chronically or incurably ill animals.
In addition, with most patients, it is virtually impossible not to get close and create special bonds with them.
Add to all this the excessive workload and the responsibility not to fail the animal, the client or both, and you have the perfect combination for us to fall victim to compassion fatigue – unless we learn to channel and externalize our feelings.
What is compassion fatigue in the veterinary sector?
Compassion fatigue is a cumulative process, a type of burnout that especially affects healthcare professionals who are dedicated to the care of others, and experience daily negative situations, which are traumatic for the individuals themselves and don’t always have an outcome or resolution despite their best efforts.
It leads to a permanent state of physical and mental exhaustion, disillusionment and a feeling of helplessness with a low capacity to cope with everyday living. It can lead to severe psychological disorders such as post-traumatic stress and depression.
What factors can cause compassion fatigue in veterinarians and related staff?
Among the best-identified factors, we can distinguish those that are inherent to the personality and those that refer to the veterinary profession itself.
In the first group, we would find poor self-care – poor sleep, poor nutrition-, previous trauma or pre-existing psychological disorders, isolation, lack of social support, high levels of empathy and the inability to manage stress.
More profession-specific factors include the degree of exposure to traumatic and stressful factors over time, lack of job satisfaction and recognition, and ethical and moral conflicts that can lead to high anxiety about having to take actions against our own convictions.
What are the symptoms of compassion fatigue?
If you feel exhausted or irritable, no longer enjoy your profession because you feel that everything you do is meaningless and any excuse to skip work is a good one, struggle to make decisions or have started toxic habits, you may be experiencing the first symptoms of compassion fatigue.
Empathy fatigue, as this disorder is also known, manifests itself with the following symptoms:
- Dissociation. You are physically present at work but your mind is unable to concentrate on what you are doing, living as if disconnected from reality. You function on autopilot.
- Emotional numbing. This is the brain’s way of alleviating suffering: you find it difficult to express feelings, to define what is happening to you and to relate to the experiences around you.
- Isolation. You stop having social contact and tend to isolate yourself at home or take refuge in new technologies. You may come to think that since no one understands your situation, it is not worth discussing it or explaining it. You stop enjoying activities you used to enjoy.
- Hypervigilance. This is a state of heightened sensory sensitivity that is often accompanied by an exaggeration in the intensity of your reactions. This is a heightened state of alertness designed to protect you from danger, which makes you more irritable than usual.
- Sleep problems. You find it difficult to sleep or you sleep too much.
- Crying. You cry because of different situations and frequently, either because something happened, or for no apparent reason.
- Avoidance and/or obsession. You either avoid anything related to the source of distress or you turn and focus on it obsessively.
How to prevent compassion fatigue
Prevention is always the best option before we start to notice the symptoms that something is not working as well as it should.
On a personal level, it is necessary to learn a series of skills to improve our ability to adapt to the emotional demands of the profession and to learn to integrate them into our daily lives. It will also help us to master client communication and conflict resolution, something that unfortunately you aren’t taught during your degree.
The AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) advocates that we should practice these rules of self-care to alleviate compassion fatigue:
- Focus on building your resilience with adequate sleep, good nutrition, regular physical activity or active relaxation such as yoga or meditation
- Take time to be alone with yourself.
- Engage in meditation and/or mindfulness-based stress reduction.
- Engage with co-workers to celebrate successes and mourn sorrows as a group.
- Connect with other colleagues, either in person or through online discussions, for shared support that can remind you that you aren’t alone.
- Practice “expressive writing.” Strand advises journaling for 15-20 minutes every day about what stressed you out that day.
- Practice your spiritual beliefs.
- Complete basic hygiene tasks every day, such as combing/brushing your hair and changing into and out of work clothes.
- Wash up before you leave work – even just your hands and face. Think of it as a symbolic ‘washing away’ of the hardness of the day.
It is also important to set limits on the time spent at work and learn to really switch off with friends or colleagues and not talk about medical cases outside of working hours.
As Dr Luis Feo said in the interview published in VetVoices, practicing a sport (or a hobby) that requires concentration is an ideal way to give yourself a break.
Your body is as important as your mind: favour time for sleep (8 hours minimum), aim to eat a balanced diet by taking time to savour your food and learn to relax your body and mind. In the Vet Yogi section, you will find yoga, breathing and meditation exercises tailored to the veterinary sector.
If you think you may be starting to suffer from the symptoms of compassion fatigue, you should consider seeking professional aid to give you the tools you need to help you cope with the emotional demands of your profession.
- Burn-out and compassion fatigue. Vetbonds. AVEPA (Asociación de Veterinarios Especialistas en Pequeños Animales)
- Work and compassion fatigue. AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association)
- Compassion fatigue: the price of caring. Deborah A.Boyle. Elsevier