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Managing Compassion Fatigue

Updated: Jan 13

Ever hit the end of the day feeling far more exhausted than you should? The truth is, being in the veterinary industry can be taxing, not just physically, but mentally as well. There are so many highs – like those new puppy kisses – and lows – like having to euthanize a long-time patient – that it can feel like you’re constantly on an emotional rollercoaster. This experience is often referred to as compassion fatigue, and if it gets out of hand, it could negatively impact your health and your career.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

People often use the term “burnout” when talking about compassion fatigue, but the truth is, while there are some similarities, the two are not interchangeable. The main difference is the root cause. A lot of things can cause burnout: unreasonable expectations, unclear job responsibilities, conflict with management or coworkers, and basically anything that causes dissatisfaction. As such, burnout is typically something that takes time to develop.

To the contrary, compassion fatigue – also sometimes referred to as secondary traumatic stress (STS) – can have a much more rapid onset. It’s also something that can impact just about every role in the vet clinic. For instance, a front desk agent talking to a client whose dog was just hit by a car. It could even be caused by discussing a traumatic event amongst other staff members.

Regardless of how it is triggered, compassion fatigue is par for the course in the veterinary industry. That being said, there are ways one can learn how to anticipate its onset so it can be better managed. Let’s take a look at three ways to do just that.

Be Aware

They say the first step to overcoming any problem is to recognize that it exists. Raising awareness of compassion fatigue and knowing its signs and symptoms is an important piece of the puzzle. The more one is aware of what’s happening, the faster he or she can spot the red flags and be able to minimize its impact.

The tricky part with this is that each person may have unique stressors. In other words, what triggers compassion fatigue for one may not for someone else, and vice versa. It’s being able to identify these personal stressors that’s the ultimate key to improving the outcome.

Set Boundaries

Ever find yourself settling in at home after a long day in the clinic and being consumed with thoughts about whether that patient in the ICU is going to survive? Do you find yourself constantly checking your email or voicemail messages? Are you guilty of texting colleagues to check in on patients or discuss work when you’re off the clock?

One of the biggest causes of compassion fatigue is lack of clear and strong boundaries. Yes, you love your job and are passionate about patient care. That doesn’t mean you have to be emotionally plugged in 24/7/365. Take an honest assessment of your habits and behavior. Identify things that are not healthy or may be impacting your family, and make some serious changes.

Strike a Balance

Finding a balance between your work life and your personal life is important in any industry, but it’s particularly critical in the veterinary field. That being said, exactly what that balance looks like will be different for each individual. To some, it may be a 50/50 split between clinic time and time off. Others may be perfectly comfortable with the scales tipping a little further one way or the other.

Figure out what the ideal work-life balance means to you and then make some changes to help bring you more in line with that balance. It’ll take some time, effort and maybe even some sacrifices, but the positive impact, both for yourself as well as your clients, will make it well worth it in the long run.

Compassion fatigue is a very real concern in the veterinary industry. Being able to anticipate and manage it is a process, but a necessary one. And it’s not something that’s entirely on the individual, either. Clinic leadership should also take proactive steps to help create a workplace that supports and promotes good mental and emotional health for staff. That being said, in a job where taking care of others is central, it’s important to also care for oneself. Remember – you can’t fill from an empty pot.

Our Advice on Managing Compassion Fatigue in Veterinary Practice

What does compassion fatigue entail, and in what ways is it different from burnout?

Compassion fatigue is the emotional drain experienced by those constantly exposed to others' trauma, like in veterinary work. It differs from burnout, which results from chronic workplace stress. While burnout develops over time, compassion fatigue can have a more rapid onset due to emotional involvement.

What are the common causes of burnout in the veterinary industry?

Common causes of burnout in the veterinary industry include long hours, high workloads, emotional stress from patient care, client expectations, and financial pressures. Additionally, dealing with euthanasia and maintaining a work-life balance contribute to increased stress levels, leading to burnout.

What indicators and manifestations are typical of compassion fatigue?

Symptoms of compassion fatigue typically manifest as emotional exhaustion, reduced empathy, increased irritability, challenges with focus, disrupted sleep patterns, and feelings of despair. It can also lead to a diminished sense of enjoyment in work and increased anxiety or depression symptoms.

What unhealthy habits may contribute to compassion fatigue in veterinary staff?

Unhealthy habits contributing to compassion fatigue in veterinary staff include constantly taking work home, being unable to detach from patient outcomes, neglecting personal needs and self-care, and continuously overextending themselves without adequate rest or support. These practices can exacerbate emotional exhaustion.

What role should clinic leadership play in supporting staff's mental and emotional health?

Clinic leadership should actively foster a supportive environment for staff's mental and emotional health. This includes promoting a healthy work-life balance, providing access to mental health resources, encouraging open communication, recognizing signs of stress or burnout, and ensuring staff feel valued and heard. Leadership should also implement policies that prevent overwork and create a culture where self-care is prioritized.

For more practice management tips, tricks, and expert advice, bookmark the DVMelite blog and check back often for fresh content.

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