How to Face Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue is a type of reaction to post-traumatic stress, and veterinary professionals are particularly susceptible to it. It’s caused by exposure to multiple emotionally taxing events over time, such as euthanasia and grief counseling for clients.

Symptoms include emotional fatigue, apathy, lack of focus, anxiety, lack of confidence, hopelessness, and negativity. As a licensed psychotherapist who intimately understands the business of veterinary medicine, I have focused on how emotional distress manifests in veterinary professionals. Thanks largely to my friends at dvm360.com, this important topic has received the attention it deserves in recent veterinary news.

My conclusion: You must prevent compassion fatigue before it permanently impacts your happiness and your ability to provide the service you are passionate about. Here are three steps you should take:

  1. Identify it.
  2. Talk about it.
  3. Provide support.

 Identify It

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If a team member demonstrates a puzzling lack of appropriate empathy in delicate professional situations, s/he might have compassion fatigue. When suffering from this condition, people don’t have any gas left in the tank and aren’t doing things the way they used to. They no longer show that they are connected with their inspiration, such as healing pets. Here are some typical signs:

  • Laughing or otherwise exhibiting a lighthearted response to death or drama
  • Judging, being sarcastic, or withdrawing in response to traumatic events
  • Using laymen’s terms in lieu of clinical, respectful terms. For example: “Oh well, another one down the drain,” or “I guess we’ll be putting another one down tonight.”
  • Demonstrating lack of care for their own pets

Read this list of symptoms to test whether you are suffering from compassion fatigue yourself.

Talk About It

When people talk about their problems and let them out, something miraculous happens: The problems lose their power. Make it safe for your team members to talk about what’s going on with them. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Bring up compassion fatigue in your next staff meeting.
  2. Let your team know that many people in the veterinary profession suffer from compassion fatigue. It’s not something to be ashamed of.
  3. Welcome discussion on the topic. Talking about compassion fatigue is the first step in overcoming it.

Provide Support

Once you know that compassion fatigue is impacting one or more members of your staff, you have to support them. It’s the relational thing to do, and it helps the practice as well. These team members are losing their focus on clients and quality care. They become less and less productive over time. Here are some ways to provide support, as I suggest in this video:

  • Make adjustments in schedules to ensure no one has to take on more than their fair share of euthanasia procedures or client grief counseling.
  • Train more people on the team to take on these tasks.
  • Recommend a pet-loss support group, or a grief-counseling group, where team members can discuss the multiple losses they have to deal with.
  • Suggest piggy-backing off organizations available to those who work in human medicine, such as those for oncologists or end-of-life hospice nurses
  • Locate therapists or counselors in your area willing to do pro bono work, or work at reduced rates, who may help people suffering from compassionate fatigue because they help animals.
  • Consider starting your own support group.

For more information on compassion fatigue and its effects on veterinary professionals, read “The Burden of Care: Know the Risks of your Mental Health.”

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