Burned Out And On The Brink: Signs of Compassion Fatigue in Vets

compassion fatigue veterinary

‘Compassion fatigue develops over time – taking weeks, sometimes years to surface. It’s a low-level, chronic clouding of caring and concern for others in your life – whether you work in or outside the home. Over time, your ability to feel and care for others becomes eroded through overuse of your skills of compassion.’ – When Helping Hurts by F. Oshberg, MD

A fundamental part of veterinary care is looking after others- but what happens when vets don’t look after themselves?

Compassion fatigue (which is also known as vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress, or secondary victimization) is the result of a veterinary caregiver’s close relationship with their patients. Vets can take on the emotional burden of their patients (and their owners), leading to a chronic state of emotional depletion1.

Compassion fatigue is an occupational hazard of veterinary care. Many vets cannot avoid the risk factors which lead to this form of burnout, such as long working hours and exposure to death/dying. 

So much so that according to a study of 229 veterinary professionals, the prevalence of low average symptoms of secondary traumatic stress was 74%2

But what are the signs of compassion fatigue in veterinary professionals? 

compassion fatigue veterinary

Warning Signs of Compassion Fatigue in Veterinary Professionals

Mental Health Problems

It is no secret that compassion fatigue has a knock-on effect on a veterinarian’s mental health. However, the way compassion fatigue can manifest can be quite distinctive.

Veterinary professionals often experience stressful situations in the workplace. Whether it’s treating a severely ill animal, dealing with a challenging client, or having to put down a beloved pet, all these experiences inevitably take their toll. If vets are not properly debriefed after a difficult case, they can begin bottling up emotions, expending a huge amount of mental energy3.

The mental overload of emotion and stimuli can further cause vets to become sad and apathetic4. As a result, professionals can become increasingly isolated and fatigued, causing them to withdraw from family and friends5

In severe cases, veterinary caregivers may even experience symptoms similar to those found in PTSD sufferers, such as intrusive thoughts or flashbacks6.  

Physical Problems

Compassion fatigue not only has a knock-on effect on veterinarians’ mental health but also their physical health. 

Those experiencing emotional fatigue may also experience bouts of tiredness from their exhaustive hours at the clinic, or see their stress manifest as a chronic ailment7. Suffers from emotional fatigue may suffer from gastrointestinal problems and recurrent colds- likely due to the long-term effects of stress on the immune system8 9

Further, individuals who withdraw and dissociate from their work may also neglect their care and hygiene. This is due to the exhaustive nature of compassion fatigue, draining individuals of the energy required to complete even simple acts of self-care10.  

Poor Coping Mechanisms

Veterinarians who are struggling with the mental and physical ramifications of compassion fatigue may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms. 

An obvious indicator of compassion fatigue is work dissatisfaction. Veterinarians may begin venting incessantly to others about their work-life, to the point where it affects their professional reputation11. This is of course detrimental, as it can impact a veterinarian’s professional standing. 

In more severe cases, professionals may seek some sort of relief overeat or abuse substances to seek some sort of relief12. This in turn has a circular effect on mental and physical health, creating a vicious cycle of self-neglect. 

Signs of Compassion Fatigue Within Organizations 

Poorly managed workplaces where hours and long and stress levels are high (sound familiar?) may characteristically experience warning signs indicative of an emotionally weary team13

Veterinarians who recognize the prevalence of such behaviors in their workplaces should raise this with management so appropriate interventions can be made. 

Caring For The Caregivers 

Compassion fatigue, whilst common, should not be taken lightly. The physical and mental implications of emotional burnout on veterinary professionals are both prevalent and severe. Vets are so used to taking care of others, the question begs to be asked: who’s taking care of them? 

It is the responsibility of both veterinarians and supervisors to look out for the signs of compassion fatigue to ensure the wellbeing of others. Those who believe they are suffering from emotional exhaustion should actively try to address this using various management techniques, or reach out to a medical professional. 

Struggling with compassion fatigue? Read this: ‘4 Ways to Deal With Emotional Fatigue as a Veterinarian’

References:

1-‘Work and compassion fatigue | American Veterinary Medical ….’ https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/wellbeing/work-and-compassion-fatigue. Accessed 19 Apr. 2021.

2- ‘An investigation of the prevalence of compassion fatigue ….’ 21 Jun. 2019, https://www.magonlinelibrary.com/doi/10.12968/vetn.2019.10.5.276. Accessed 19 Apr. 2021.

3- ‘Compassion fatigue in emergency medicine: The cost of caring ….’ 17 Jan. 2016, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1742-6723.12533. Accessed 19 Apr. 2021.

4- ‘AVMA – Work and Compassion Fatigue – American Veterinary ….’ https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/wellbeing/work-and-compassion-fatigue. Accessed 19 Apr. 2021.

5- ‘Compassion fatigue: The experience of nurses. – APA PsycNET.’ https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2010-26637-008. Accessed 19 Apr. 2021.

6- ‘Compassion Fatigue Symptoms in Caregivers Similar to PTSD ….’ https://maibergerinstitute.com/compassion-fatigue-symptoms-in-caregivers-similar-to-ptsd/. Accessed 19 Apr. 2021.

7-‘Work and compassion fatigue | American Veterinary Medical ….’ https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/wellbeing/work-and-compassion-fatigue. Accessed 19 Apr. 2021.

8- ‘(PDF) PERSPECTIVE OF COMPASSION FATIGUE AMONG ….’ 28 Jul. 2020, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/343262916_PERSPECTIVE_OF_COMPASSION_FATIGUE_AMONG_FRONTLINE_CARE_GIVERS. Accessed 19 Apr. 2021.

9- ‘Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System … – NCBI – NIH.’ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361287/. Accessed 19 Apr. 2021.

10- ‘Self-care: Managing compassion fatigue – SAGE Journals.’ https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1755738015581026. Accessed 19 Apr. 2021.

11- ‘(PDF) The Influence of Negative Workplace Gossip on Knowledge ….’ 15 Apr. 2020, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/340838429_The_Influence_of_Negative_Workplace_Gossip_on_Knowledge_Sharing_Insight_from_the_Cognitive_Dissonance_Perspective. Accessed 19 Apr. 2021.

12- ‘Compassion fatigue and substance use among nurses | Annals of ….’ 13 Mar. 2018, https://annals-general-psychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12991-018-0183-5. Accessed 19 Apr. 2021.

13- ‘Organizational symptoms of compassion fatigue | American ….’ https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/wellbeing/organizational-symptoms-compassion-fatigue. Accessed 19 Apr. 2021.

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