There’s no other way to put it: life in the veterinary world can be tough. From long hours to ethical dilemmas and everything in between, dealing with the day-to-day demands of a busy practice can be exhausting.
It’s not unusual to feel emotionally drained at the end of a particularly hard day. But if that feeling persists, it could be a sign of compassion fatigue.
What is compassion fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is the emotional strain a caregiver experiences when they take on the suffering of their patients, particularly those who have gone through stress or trauma. Over time, working in close proximity to trauma and overusing your compassion skills can gradually erode your ability to feel and care for others.
In other words, compassion fatigue is what happens when you care too much, for too long.
Why veterinary professionals are at risk
Compassion fatigue is common in helping and healing professions. That includes doctors, nurses, therapists, caregivers, social workers, first responders - and, yes, veterinary professionals. A study published in 2021 found that more than half (50.2%) of full-time veterinarians in the United States had high burnout scores and 58.9% had high secondary traumatic stress scores, both of which are closely linked to compassion fatigue.
What makes veterinary professionals vulnerable to compassion fatigue? There are a few factors at play, including:
- Regular exposure to stressful, emotionally charged situations, including death, animal cruelty, and mourning clients.
- Frequently facing ethical dilemmas and being forced to make difficult decisions.
- Working long hours and having insufficient time for self-care.
- Having a high sense of empathy and taking on the emotional burden of patients and clients.
How to recognize the signs of compassion fatigue
Compassion fatigue doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a slow, cumulative process - one that may take weeks, months, or years to manifest.
The most common signs of compassion fatigue are feelings of irritability, apathy, and loss of job satisfaction. However, the way compassion fatigue is expressed can vary from person to person, as can the severity of symptoms.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, common symptoms include:
- Exhaustion and fatigue.
- Lack of self-care.
- Feelings of resentment toward patients and/or clients.
- Poor job satisfaction.
- Decrease in work quality.
- Changes in appetite.
- Mood shifts.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Difficulty sleeping.
- Compulsive behavior.
Curious about your own levels of compassion fatigue? Check out the Professional Quality of Life assessment tool, a self-report questionnaire used by researchers to study the positive and negative effects of working in a helping profession. Knowing where you sit on the scale is the first step to addressing compassion fatigue moving forward.
How to prevent compassion fatigue
Treating compassion fatigue typically comes down to self-care, relaxation, and practicing mindfulness. Below are some proven strategies for staying on top of compassion fatigue.
1. Embrace compassion satisfaction
Compassion satisfaction is the yin to compassion fatigue’s yang. It’s the pleasure you derive from doing your work well. It’s the satisfaction that washes over you after a successful surgery, the pride you feel after learning a new skill, the warm fuzzy feeling you get when you deliver good news to a grateful client. It’s the reassuring sense of this is why I got into veterinary medicine.
Compassion satisfaction is a powerful antidote to compassion fatigue. But it’s not enough to simply go through the motions - you need to actively let yourself feel satisfied with your work and recognize how compassion satisfaction can balance out many of the negative aspects of caring.
2. Practice mindfulness
Letting yourself feel satisfied mostly comes down to mindfulness. With the hustle and bustle of the daily grind, it’s easy for the heart-warming moments of veterinary life - the thriving patients, the satisfied clients - to slip by unnoticed, which means your satisfaction tanks never get a chance to refill. To complicate matters, humans are hardwired to focus on the negatives, so you’re more likely to fixate on the things that went wrong than the things that went right. More than 1 in 3 (35.5%) veterinarians are classified as having low compassion satisfaction scores.
Practice mindfulness by inserting short mental pauses into your everyday life - brief moments when you can take inventory of your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. Mindfulness can be a personal thing, or it can be encouraged at an organizational level. For instance, introducing optional debriefing sessions can provide staff with a channel to process emotionally charged situations and prevent compassion fatigue from spreading through the practice.
Savor the good times and consciously celebrate the wins, and think back to how you felt in those moments when negative thoughts start to cloud your mind. Finding ways to sustainably derive satisfaction from your work does take some effort, but it’s absolutely worth it in the long run.
For more tips, check out our Mindful May initiative.
3. Build your community
We all need someone to talk to from time to time. Opening up to a trusted confidante can be a great way to process a problem that you’ve been carrying around in your head for a while and might help you see things from another perspective.
Other veterinary professionals will be able to relate to your struggles, but don’t forget to talk to people outside the workplace, too! Build a diverse social network of colleagues, friends, and family, and make time to see them on a regular basis. A study published in The Canadian Veterinary Journal found that most veterinarians were satisfied or very satisfied with the support provided by their spouse or romantic partner (80.5%); family (70.2%); and friends (69.8%).
Talking about your thoughts and feelings can be hard but remember that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a big, serious conversation. Sometimes, having a lighthearted rant about your day to someone you trust is enough to release pent-up feelings and stop minor problems from snowballing into bigger issues further down the track.
4. Practice expressive writing
Expressive writing is another great way to build up resilience to compassion fatigue. Think of it as venting to your journal. Put 15 minutes aside each day to write about stressful events that happened at work and how you felt about the situation.
Putting pen to paper can help prevent compassion fatigue in a variety of ways:
- It encourages you to face your thoughts and feelings. It’s the same premise behind emotional exposure therapy, which posits that confronting the painful feelings associated with a traumatic experience gradually diminishes the potency of those emotions.
- Breaking down a stressful event and reconstructing it into a cohesive narrative can help you make sense of difficult experiences. This is known as cognitive restructuring.
- People who find it difficult to open up to others may find it easier to express their thoughts through writing.
- Over time, you may notice recurring themes or concerns in your writing. These insights may empower you to make positive changes in your professional and/or personal life.
5. Make time for self-care
There’s a reason flight attendants tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.
The same rings true in the veterinary world. While it can be challenging to make time for self-care when you’re trying to keep up with a busy practice, the reality is that you’ve got to take care of yourself before you can take care of others.
Prioritizing self-care helps prevent compassion fatigue and reduces the risk of burnout. It’s not about being selfish or slacking off - it’s about investing in your wellbeing so you can continue to provide the highest level of patient care possible.
Here are some self-care techniques that can help alleviate compassion fatigue:
- Get enough sleep.
- Eat a balanced diet.
- Exercise regularly.
- Make time for hobbies.
- Leave work on time.
- Take breaks at work.
- Take vacations.
- Participate in active relaxation such as yoga or meditation.
- Make time to socialize with friends and family.
- Connect with colleagues in person and/or online for shared support.
- Socialize with friends, family, and colleagues.
- Keep up with basic personal care tasks like showering, brushing your hair, and changing out of your work clothes when you get home.
Managing compassion fatigue isn’t easy - but it is possible. Know the signs of compassion fatigue, make time for self-care, and don’t be afraid to reach out for support when you need a helping hand.
Take care out there!