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One of the best parts of working in veterinary medicine is being surrounded by like-minded animal lovers. Veterinary professionals are deeply motivated by their desire to serve others and make a difference in the world. And having such kind, compassionate colleagues can make the everyday grind much brighter.
But with the stress of long hours and the exposure to chronic trauma and grief, a veterinarian brimming with love can quickly become overtired and overstretched. And soon enough, compassion fatigue takes over.
Compassion fatigue is a very real issue in all caregiving industries—from doctors to social workers to veterinarians. So how can you protect yourself from your own fatigue and work to make a change?
Definition of Veterinary Compassion Fatigue
The first step, of course, is understanding compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue is a condition of extreme exhaustion unique to caregivers regularly exposed to trauma. It is often called “vicarious trauma” or “secondary traumatic stress.” Humans are incredibly resilient, but if asked to take on the burdens of others over and over again, we can easily become worn down.
The Difference Between Compassion Fatigue and Burnout
The two are often thought of as interchangeable, but there is a distinct difference. Burnout can occur in anyone who is overworked. Compassion fatigue is specific to those in caregiving professions who are more susceptible to taking on the stressors of their patients. Those across the healthcare industry are thus more at risk for developing compassion fatigue.
Causes of Compassion Fatigue in Veterinary Medicine
It wouldn’t take your veterinary team long to rattle off potential causes of compassion fatigue if prompted. Could it be your twelve-hour workday? The burden of communicating a grim prognosis on a daily basis? The task of putting a family’s beloved pet down due to their financial restrictions? The answer is yes, yes, and yes.
Common triggers of compassion fatigue:
- Managing a heavy workload, excessive demands, and/or long hours
Veterinarians have always worked long days and had high caseloads. But with the increase in pet ownership during the pandemic and the current staff shortage across the industry, the workload has only gotten heavier. Too often, veterinarians put their personal life on the back burner to focus on patient care.
- Providing care to someone experiencing depression or grief A veterinarian’s role is not only to care for the animals but also to support the pet owners. This means managing the emotions of a family scared for their dogs’ life or a farmer worried about a disease tearing through their livestock.
- Witnessing signs of animal abuse
It is traumatizing to witness any level of animal abuse. But for veterinarians who are highly sensitive and committed to the wellbeing of animals, it is particularly heartbreaking.
- Being physically or verbally threatened
Talk to any veterinarian, and they will have stories of threats and abuses from distressed pet owners. Whether it’s anger at the cost of surgery or outrage that their pet couldn’t be saved, many pet owners’ grief manifests in rage toward the veterinarian.
- Providing euthanasia
It is often the best option, given the circumstances. Even so, providing euthanasia for any living being is traumatic. And veterinarians are asked to do it again and again and again.
- Financial stress from student debt
Veterinarians have the same length of school as physicians with a fraction of the salary. Paying off their student loans is incredibly stressful and takes many veterinarians their entire careers.
Studies show that veterinarians face three to five ethical dilemmas a week. That is an incredible frequency in which they are asked to extend their compassion in a complicated situation. When these triggers start to affect your life outside of work, compassion fatigue sets in. And it is no surprise that many veterinarians suffer from it.
Signs and Symptoms of Veterinary Compassion Fatigue
What, then, does it look like when you experience compassion fatigue? It can manifest in several different ways and affect both your physical and mental health. Let’s look at a number of common signs of compassion fatigue.
- Changes in appetite
- Chronic ailments
- Substance Abuse
- Lack of Self-care
- Digestive issues
- Mood swings
- Sadness and apathy
- Isolation and Detachment
- Difficulty concentrating
- Recurring nightmares or flashbacks
- Intrusive imagery
Addressing Compassion Fatigue When You Recognize It in Your Practice
Do any of those symptoms feel familiar? Have you seen them in yourself or others? To increase veterinary well-being, we must closely monitor our emotions and physical health.
Self-care is critical.
You spend your day caring for others, but too often, the person most challenging to care for is yourself. But this is one of the most critical strategies for preventing compassion fatigue.
Prioritize eating well, exercising regularly, and getting adequate sleep. As silly as it may sound, don’t forget to brush your teeth, shower, and comb your hair. Our own health goes out the window when we’re overwhelmed. Still, taking simple steps to care for your physical well-being and protect your work-life balance will prevent you from developing compassion fatigue.
Connect with colleagues.
Your workplace is teeming with kind, compassionate team members who intimately understand your everyday stressors and can provide social support. Build relationships with those who “get it.” Vent frustrations, grieve losses, and encourage one another to have self-compassion and release tension healthily.
Meditate & practice mindfulness.
There is a reason prayer, meditation, and mindfulness have been practiced for centuries. These practices ground you in a reality higher than yourself and promote relaxation and relief. Start small with a simple breathing meditation.
Celebrate the wins.
We are too good at ruminating on our losses. But the joys of the job are what make it all worthwhile—a successful surgery, an abused animal finding a safe home, a treatment bringing about health and healing. This is called compassion satisfaction and is one of the best antidotes to emotional exhaustion. Our days are filled with joyous moments too, and we would do well to shift our focus there more often.
Journal your thoughts.
Writing down your stresses, fears, and burdens can be incredibly enlightening. It helps process through and reframe tricky moments. Take 10-15 minutes a day to journal. Allow your judgment to take a back seat and your stream of consciousness to take over. Use the time to both process your stresses and remember why you became a veterinarian in the first place. Writing down your grief will significantly reduce the negative effects it has on your life.
Wash your hands at the end of the day.
This extra simple step might be the most transformative. Before you leave each day, take a moment at the sink. Breathe deeply and wash your hands—symbolically release the stress of the day and prepare to enjoy the rest of your evening with family and friends.
Seek professional help.
Compassion fatigue is a nuanced and complicated syndrome. And while all of these steps may help bring relief, talking to a professional is always a good idea. You were not meant to walk this road alone.
Knowing that compassion fatigue is a common experience in the veterinary industry will help you better support yourself and others in your practice. If you need more resources, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) hosts a number of webinars that address mental health in veterinary professionals. The AVMA also provides a free online assessment and a number of self-care tools that can be a great place to start in recovering your mental health. Not One More Vet is another crucial organization working tirelessly to support veterinarian professionals. And always, in times of deep crisis, there is the Suicide Prevention Hotline (988).
Don’t wait to reach out. Help, support, and hope are readily available for all of us.