5 strategies to help avoid compassion fatigue during COVID-19

VettedVetted February 2021
Volume 17
Issue 2

One veterinarian offers advice on coping with pandemic pressures while strengthening well-being among team members.

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Being a veterinarian can seem like an impossible job most days. Who else juggles being a dentist, dermatologist, orthopedic specialist, cardiologist, surgeon, oncologist, radiologist, and mind reader to a patient that can’t talk?

Veterinarians tend to be honest, caring, selfless, hardworking, and creative problem solvers (think James Herriot), but many of us have sky-high debt and constantly face pushback from clients about the costs of specialized care. Pet owners want it all, but they do not want it to cost too much.

Although the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has only added to these challenges, it presents a unique opportunity for us to improve our boundary setting and our people-pleasing natures, gain perspective on what we can and cannot control, and take care of ourselves so we can take care of others.

With people spending more time at home with their pets, the human-animal bond is stronger than ever, making the service we provide essential. The work we do benefits the mental health of our human clients just as much as it does the physical health of our patients.

If you or your team members are suffering from compassion fatigue during these unprecedented times, tap these 5 useful strategies to help everyone come out on top.

1. Promote self-care. Investing in your well-being has never been more crucial. Try to find an activity that refreshes you. I have found a 2- to 5-minute meditation first thing in the morning very helpful (the Calm app is great). If meditation does not appeal, I have also found leisure reading (not the internet, and not about COVID-19) calming. Online exercise classes or even a morning walk or jog can be incredibly mind-clearing. Whatever you choose, make sure it is something you can maintain. Create a routine and follow it daily. Remember, you have to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you can help others. Self-care is not selfish; it is necessary.

2. Practice empathy. Compassion fatigue may look different during the pandemic. For example, your team may be manifesting it in new ways such as making mistakes, being more withdrawn, or having problems focusing and staying on task. Pay attention to all signs of isolation, anxiety, and stress. 

As leaders, veterinarians should regularly check on their teams and maintain open communication. A simple “Hey, are you having a rough day?” goes a long way.

COVID-19 significantly affects our clients as well. Many are experiencing financial strain, hindering their ability to pay for veterinary care. Some clients are delaying elective items and other less urgent services. Acknowledging that clients are coping with their own anxiety and stress helps us not to absorb all the responsibility for things beyond our control.

3. Utilize telemedicine. Telehealth has become an increasingly popular platform during the pandemic. Not only did it allow us to continue providing quality care to patients, but it has increased client loyalty. I like to think of telemedicine as a client gratitude builder during COVID-19 and suspect the trend will continue far beyond the pandemic. It is also important to note that placing value on our services and receiving income for client-driven telemedicine consults is beneficial to our profession. Telemedicine helps us set appropriate boundaries with clients and to stop giving away our time and expertise for free.

Additionally, clients love participating in their pets’ appointments and are so appreciative when they are able to watch the examination.

4. Maintain and improve curbside protocols. We have fully transitioned to inpatient drop-off and curbside protocols, and it appears we will not be doing otherwise anytime soon. Many veterinarians are discussing ways to maintain curbside protocols beyond the pandemic.

Although curbside care has inconveniences, such as a lot of walking between the office and parking lot, it can also streamline workflow and reduce stress. Using telemedicine to connect with clients during curbside appointments has been exceedingly helpful. Utilizing a videoconference app (my practice uses TeleVet) to take a history, ask questions, and perform an examination in front of the client is far more efficient and less time-consuming than going back and forth on the phone throughout the curbside appointment. It has also helped our new clients to feel connected to the appointment, even though they are parked outside.

5. Be patient. I have developed the following internal mantra during COVID-19: I can do anything for a short time. That needs repeating. I can do anything for a short time. This mantra reminds me that the pandemic will eventually pass, and when it does, I believe our teams and practices will be stronger and more committed than ever.

Amy C. Garrou, DVM, is Medical Director at Washington Heights Veterinary Clinic in Houston, TX. Her areas of interest include internal medicine, endocrinology, soft tissue surgery, cardiology, and telemedicine. She is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Texas Veterinary Medical Association, the Harris County Veterinary Medical Association, the Veterinary Information Network, and the International Association of Veterinary Pain Management. She serves on the board of the Houston Zoo, YPO (formerly Young Presidents’ Organization), Gulf States Chapter, and the Harris County Veterinary Medical Association.

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