Compassion fatigue: What it is and why veterinarians should care

A revealing look at compassion fatigue, how to identify it,
and the steps you can take to overcome it

The veterinary industry is full of compassionate people who care deeply for the animals they treat and the pet parents who care for them. But that compassion can have a dark side.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), “Veterinary professionals are very much at risk for compassion fatigue. “Like other caregivers, we deal with death and illness on a daily basis,” they explained. “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.”

Below, we’ll cover what compassion fatigue is, how to identify it, and what you can do to overcome it.

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What is compassion fatigue?

Before we dive in too deep, let’s start with the basics.  So, what exactly is compassion fatigue?

WebMD describes compassion fatigue as “the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of helping others — often through experiences of stress or trauma.”

They go on to note that “being affected by your work is a normal part of caregiving professions, but when the feeling becomes overwhelming, you may be experiencing compassion fatigue.”

Is compassion fatigue the same thing as burnout?

While compassion fatigue and burnout are closely related, they aren’t interchangeable terms. So, what is burnout?

Psychology Today defines burnout as “a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress.”

According to the National Library of Medicine, burnout is just one component of compassion fatigue. “The second component of compassion fatigue (CF) is secondary traumatic stress (STS). It is work related, secondary exposure to extremely or traumatically stressful events.”

How do you know if you have compassion fatigue?

Now that we know what compassion fatigue is, how do you determine if it’s affecting you? The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) offers these 15 signs of compassion fatigue:

  • Feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, helpless, or powerless when hearing of others’ suffering.
  • Feelings of anger, irritability, sadness, and anxiety.
  • Feeling detached from our surroundings or from our physical or emotional experience.
  • Feeling emotionally, psychologically, or physically exhausted, burnt out, or numb.
  • Physical symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, headaches.
  • Reduced empathy.
  • Feeling hypersensitive or insensitive to stories we hear.
  • Limited tolerance for stress.
  • Self-isolation and withdrawal.
  • Relationship conflict.
  • Feeling less efficient or productive at work.
  • Reduced pleasure in activities we used to enjoy.
  • Difficulty sleeping and nightmares.
  • Difficulty concentrating, focusing, or making decisions.
  • Self-medicating and increase in substance use.
How common is compassion fatigue?

You might be surprised to learn that compassion fatigue is exceedingly common — especially in the veterinary industry. In one poll, 71% of veterinarians indicated that they considered leaving their profession due to compassion fatigue. So, what makes compassion fatigue so prevalent among veterinarians?

According to The Veterinary Nurse, “The veterinary environment can be inherently stressful and demanding, as veterinary professionals often deal with euthanasia and end-of-life care, economics, staff shortages, and even bullying in the workplace. Veterinary professionals are known to have perfectionist personality traits that can lead to working long hours, poor sleep patterns and as a consequence, lack of supportive relationships in the work and home environment.”

How to overcome compassion fatigue

All right. Now we know what compassion fatigue is, how common it is, and how to recognize the symptoms — but what should you do if you’re suffering from compassion fatigue right now? The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) recommends several self-care strategies for veterinary teams, which can be helpful for overcoming compassion fatigue. They include:

  • Improving sleep hygiene.
  • Doing yoga.
  • Practicing gratitude.
  • Volunteering.
  • Practicing mindfulness.

Let’s take a look at each of these recommendations to see how they can help.

Improving sleep hygiene

Sleep is critical to your wellbeing.  According to Harvard Health Publishing, “Sleep and mental health are closely connected. Sleep deprivation affects your psychological state and mental health.” They go on to note that, “chronic sleep problems affect 50% to 80% of patients in a typical psychiatric practice, compared with 10% to 18% of adults in the general U.S. population.” And veterinarians, who often work long hours in stressful conditions, can easily find themselves sleeping far fewer than the recommended eight hours a night. Fortunately, improving sleep hygiene can help.

So, what exactly is sleep hygiene? Here’s what Sleep Foundation has to say: “Sleep hygiene means having both a bedroom environment and daily routines that promote consistent, uninterrupted sleep. Keeping a stable sleep schedule, making your bedroom comfortable and free of disruptions, following a relaxing pre-bed routine, and building healthy habits during the day can all contribute to ideal sleep hygiene.”

DVM offers these additional tips for improving sleep hygiene:

  • Sleep in a cool room (between 60°F and 67°F).
  • Standardize the timing and activities of your pre-sleep routine.
  • Avoid eating heavy meals 2 hours before bedtime to minimize discomfort from gastric reflux.
  • Avoid too much alcohol near bedtime because its breakdown products can interrupt sleep during the second half of the night.
  • Get up at the same time each morning, even on weekends and holidays.
  • Exercise regularly, but not right before bedtime.
  • Avoid stimulants like caffeine and nicotine prior to bed. Recent research recommends a 2 pm cutoff for all caffeine products.
  • Take a warm bath or shower 1 to 2 hours before bedtime. The external warmth opens capillary beds in the periphery (limbs), ultimately lowering core body temperature, which improves onset and quality of sleep.
  • Turn off all blue-light sources, including phone and computer screens, 1 to 2 hours before bedtime.

Doing yoga
Chances are you know someone who touts the benefits of yoga — but is it really all it’s cracked up to be? According to the American Psychological Association (APA), it is.

“Several recent studies suggest that yoga may help strengthen social attachments, reduce stress and relieve anxiety, depression and insomnia,” they explained. “Researchers are also starting to claim some success in using yoga and yoga-based treatments to help active-duty military and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.”  And they aren’t alone in their assessment.

WebMD notes that doing yoga can help you:

  • Release helpful brain chemicals.
  • Relieve depression.
  • Reduce stress.
  • Ease anxiety.
  • Improve sleep.
  • Enhance social life.

Practicing gratitude
According to University of Utah Health, “Research suggests that gratitude can make people happier, improve relationships, and potentially even counteract depression and suicidal thoughts. Gratitude can also boost self-esteem.”  But when you’re suffering from compassion fatigue, gratitude is often the furthest thing from your mind.  Fortunately, a gratitude practice can help you get back on the right track.

So, how do you get started? According to Healthline, gratitude journaling is one of the most popular techniques. They recommend the following topics you can journal about:

  • Recount a favorite moment from the day.
  • Describe a special person in your life.
  • List five things you’re grateful for that day.

Healthline goes on to note that gratitude journaling doesn’t have to be a formal affair. “It doesn’t even have to be a physical journal,” they explain. “It can be as simple as a note in your phone. This makes it easier to quickly record something you feel grateful for in the moment.”

When you’re struggling with work-related stress, volunteering might not seem like the best way to improve your mindset — but research suggests it could have serious benefits. According to Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center, “Compared to people who didn’t volunteer, people who had volunteered in the past year were more satisfied with their lives and rated their overall health as better.” They went on to note that volunteering more often leads to even greater results. “Those who volunteered at least once a month reported better mental health than participants who volunteered infrequently or not at all.”

Not sure how to get started? VolunteerMatch can help you find the volunteering opportunities that best fit your interests.

Practicing mindfulness
Mindfulness has grown steadily in popularity over the last several years — and for good reason. The APA  notes seven empirically supported benefits of mindfulness — two of which are particularly important for overcoming compassion fatigue.

  • Stress reduction – “Researchers found that the participants who experienced mindfulness-based stress reduction had significantly less anxiety, depression and somatic distress,” they explained.  They went on to add that “mindfulness meditation shifts people’s ability to use emotion regulation strategies in a way that enables them to experience emotion selectively” and that “the emotions they experience may be processed differently in the brain.”
  • Less emotional reactivity – “In a study of people who had anywhere from one month to 29 years of mindfulness meditation practice, researchers found that mindfulness meditation practice helped people disengage from emotionally upsetting pictures and enabled them to focus better on a cognitive task as compared with people who saw the pictures but did not meditate,” the APA noted. So, how do you practice mindfulness?

Mindful — a Public Benefit Organization dedicated to “sharing the gifts of mindfulness through content, training, courses, and directories” — recommends these five steps to tune into mindfulness throughout the day:

  • Set aside some time.
  • Observe the present moment as it is.
  • Let your judgments roll by.
  • Return to observing the present moment as it is.
  • Be kind to your wandering mind.

See how Flow can improve veterinary team
wellness and peace of mind.