The Struggle of Compassion Fatigue and Stress Among Veterinary Professionals

Addressing compassion fatigue and stress through education, self-care, and support

Veterinary professionals are dedicated to the care and well-being of animals, but this work can take a significant emotional toll.

AVMA states, “Veterinary professionals are very much at risk for compassion fatigue. Like other caregivers, we deal with death and illness on a daily basis. We have to deliver bad news to clients, deal with animal cruelty, and see clients struggle to balance financial needs with the needs of their pets.”

Caring for sick and injured animals, dealing with difficult cases, and managing the expectations of pet owners can be challenging and stressful. Over time, these pressures can lead to compassion fatigue and burnout.

Below, we discuss the need to know information about compassion fatigue and ways to prevent it in your clinic.

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What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is a type of stress that results from caring for others who are suffering or traumatized. It’s a form of emotional exhaustion that can occur when a caregiver becomes overwhelmed by the demands of their job. For veterinary professionals, compassion fatigue can result from caring for sick or injured animals, dealing with euthanasia, and managing difficult pet owners.

Dr. Laurie Fonken, a psychotherapist who specializes in providing mental healthcare for veterinary professionals, has summarized the issue with compassion fatigue in our field: “For those who devote their lives to the service of others, the physical and emotional demands can lead to exhaustion… the natural response may be to work harder, to do more, and to give until there is nothing left to give.”

The signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue

VetX International notes compassion fatigue “is so severe that around 74% of veterinary professionals experience low or average symptoms of secondary traumatic stress, whereas 25.8% are at risk of it.”

Compassion fatigue can manifest in different ways, but some common signs and symptoms include:

  • Feeling emotionally exhausted or detached from work.
  • Experiencing a lack of empathy or compassion for animals or pet owners.
  • Feeling irritable or easily frustrated.
  • Experiencing physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach problems.
  • Having difficulty sleeping or concentrating.
  • Feeling overwhelmed or stressed.
  • Using alcohol or drugs to cope with work-related stress.

These symptoms can be warning signs that a veterinary professional is experiencing compassion fatigue and needs to take steps to address it.

The impact of compassion fatigue on veterinary professionals

Amber Foote notes, “Work-related stress can have a significant impact on our quality of life and unfortunately lead to burn-out, moral distress and compassion fatigue. As veterinary professionals are exposed to ethical dilemmas and stressful situations daily.”

Compassion fatigue can have a significant impact on the wellbeing of veterinary professionals. It can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as physical health problems such as high blood pressure and heart disease. Compassion fatigue can also affect job performance, leading to decreased job satisfaction and burnout.

Compassion fatigue dramatically affects the veterinary field yearly and is one of the leading causes of veterinary professional turnover. It should be addressed inside your clinic, and your employees should feel comfortable coming forward for support and helpful resources.

Preventing compassion fatigue

Preventing compassion fatigue requires a combination of self-care and workplace support. Some strategies for preventing compassion fatigue include:

  • Practicing mindfulness and self-compassion.
  • Taking regular breaks and time off.
  • Engaging in stress-reducing activities such as exercise, meditation, or hobbies.
  • Seeking support from colleagues or a mental health professional.
  • Advocating for workplace policies that promote work-life balance and support employee well-being.

VetX International states, “There isn’t one simple way to prevent compassion fatigue at work, as the factors influencing its manifestation can be highly individualistic. Therefore, practice managers and/or owners need to touch base with their teams to get a feel for their needs.”

Practice managers and owners can’t know what their employees need unless they ask and communicate regularly with them. Having team meetings and one-on-ones with your staff is a great way to start these conversations — especially because it can be difficult for your team to bring up and discuss on their own.

The importance of self-care for veterinary professionals

Dr. Laura Catena states, “It is vital for us [veterinarians] to make our own wellness a priority and to freely and frequently give to ourselves. We need self-care in order to balance the stress of life, of our work, of our worries. It is something that we must maintain and hold ourselves accountable for in a profession that has a higher rate of burnout, compassion fatigue, and an epidemic of death by suicide.”

Self-care is essential for veterinary professionals to prevent compassion fatigue and maintain their wellbeing. Some self-care strategies that can help include:

  • Practicing good sleep hygiene.
  • Eating a healthy diet and staying hydrated.
  • Engaging in physical activity.
  • Taking time for hobbies and other enjoyable activities.
  • Practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or meditation.
  • Seeking support from friends, family, or a mental health professional.

The role of workplace support

Dvm360 notes, “Although self-help resources are available, they are often ineffective in the veterinary work environment. Therefore, practice leaders must prioritize work-life support.”

Workplace support is also essential for preventing compassion fatigue and burnout in veterinary professionals. Employers can support their employees by:

  • Offering flexible work schedules or paid time off.
  • Providing mental health resources such as counseling or therapy.
  • Encouraging open communication and support among colleagues.
  • Providing opportunities for professional development and growth.
  • Offering recognition and appreciation for a job well done.

Compassion fatigue and stress are significant issues facing veterinary professionals. Caring for sick and injured animals can take an emotional toll, and without proper support and self-care, it can lead to burnout and reduced job satisfaction. It’s important for veterinary professionals to recognize the signs of compassion fatigue and take steps to prevent and address it. By practicing self-care and seeking workplace support, veterinary professionals can maintain their wellbeing and continue to provide excellent care to animals and pet owners.

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