The empathy, compassion, experience, plus years of study make veterinary professionals a special breed whose service warms the hearts of many. Unfortunately, this dedication comes along with vulnerabilities, internal costs, failures, and helplessness that can take a toll on your wellbeing. This state is called compassion fatigue.
Veterinary compassion fatigue, aka secondary traumatic stress, vicarious trauma, or secondary victimization, is a condition characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion leading to an inability to empathize or feel compassion for others.
In most cases, it results from a close connection between the care-giver, their patients, and customers. However, it’s not a spontaneous health hazard. It can take years to manifest, and more often than not, it is difficult to contrast compassion fatigue vs. burnout. The clouding happens over time—as practitioners go through the phases of hopelessness, such as watching patients endure pain and succumb, and clients struggle with loss.
Eventually, practitioners may begin to face challenges in caring for themselves, even though a fundamental part of their profession is caring for others. It’s an alarming trend that can be difficult to recognize.
In this article, we shed some light on how to recognize compassion fatigue in veterinary medicine.
Mental Health Problems
Mental health issues result from various occurrences, and compassion fatigue can significantly impact mental health. Generally, an individual’s thinking, mood, and behavior is impacted and can thus result in a range of symptoms and actions.
Veterinarians suffering traumatic stress, for example may begin to show signs of drastic mood changes, difficulty concentrating and being overly reactive to circumstances. In extreme cases, sufferers may contemplate self-harm or feel suicidal. These symptoms can accelerate stress and affect one’s ability to function.
Fluctuation in emotional stability stems from constantly empathizing with patients and clients, which is normal. However, veterinary professionals should strive to instill emotional boundaries. Emotional involvement is inevitable when handling patients, but this can easily pull you down.
Setting boundaries will help you avoid carrying their pain. If there is nothing you can do to save a pet, be the light to the client rather than joining in their sorrows. Instead, demonstrate strong resilience to help the client overcome and keep you from secondary victimization. Check out this helpful webinar to get some tools and strategies to help you set boundaries – Self-Care Isn’t Selfish: Building Your Wellness Toolbox.
While compassion fatigue appears to have the most considerable impact on a practitioner’s mental wellness, it can also manifest physically. Traumatic stress symptoms can appear as chronic ailments or a general feeling of excessive tiredness from everyday work routines.
Often, such physical signs come after a long stretch of secondary traumatic stress and can cause headaches, appetite changes, recurrent colds, and gastrointestinal issues.
Sufferers of compassion fatigue tend to become unable to care for themselves, leading to neglecting their own personal hygiene. You feel exhausted and drained and thus lack the energy to carry out personal hygiene routines, which significantly impacts your physical appearance.
Too often veterinary practitioners forgo caring for themselves. After caring for others all day, they forgo self-care because it’s just too much work. Like a fine dining chef who, after a long day of preparing gourmet cuisine, comes home to cook themselves some Kraft dinner.
It’s essential that you recognize what’s happening to you physically so you can do your job well. Seek medical help whenever there are signs of chronic ailments and other unusual physical problems. Explain every detail to your physician who can quickly identify stress-related conditions, when you can’t.
Also, making self-care part of your professional routine will help you maintain your physical hygiene. You can strike a balance between empathy and self-care so that the compassion required in your profession does not undermine other aspects of your career. For more tips and info to add to your toolbox watch this webinar: WSAVA Webinar: Veterinary Wellness – Strategies for Success
More often than not, veterinary professionals struggling with compassion fatigue experience depression and isolation, and are at increased risk of using drugs and alcohol to cope. While it is detrimental to their overall wellbeing and the ability to effectively manage stress, abusing drugs and alcohol provides what they believe to be relief. Often, it is a secretive medication to related effects like insomnia, and continuous overuse can result in addiction.
The negative effects of drug and alcohol abuse linger long after the high wears off. From short-term side effects to long-term irreversible damage, addiction impacts every part of a person’s life, and can lead to deadly consequences. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s important to recognize the signs of alcohol or drug misuse to take action. But no matter what, it’s key that you keep loving and being kind to yourself. Your job is to help others, but you must start with yourself. Fill your cup first! And know that you are not alone and if you are feeling the creep of addiction reach out for help.
A sudden feeling of discontent with your job can indicate veterinary burnout or compassion fatigue. It is a familiar feeling even among workers in other fields, especially when the job takes much of an employee’s life or has failed expectations. As such, job dissatisfaction is a probable sign of compassion fatigue but could also result from other aspects of the job.
Secondary traumatic stress on its part can make vets begin to feel discontent, bitter, disappointed, and lack interest in doing the job. Others may start to complain excessively about their work and begin to feel compelled to quit.
However, a veterinary professional who experiences this should be able to point out the causes. For instance, it is easy to identify job dissatisfaction occasioned by being underpaid, frustrations with a poor work-life balance, bad management, and/or limited growth opportunities.
As such, you can assess your situation based on recent job experiences and determine the possible cause. If it results from veterinary compassion fatigue, practicing self-compassion can be an excellent place to start.