The ABCs of avoiding compassion fatigue

November 14, 2016
Brandon Hess, CVPM, CCFP

Brandon Hess, CVPM, CCFP, is an associate consultant for Tassava Consulting and Management Support.

Veterinary professionals, take these elementary steps to protect your mental health. Plus, a printable flowchart on the differences between burnout and compassion fatigue.

How do you feel when you lose a longtime patient?

Or when you perform a euthanasia for an elderly client whose pet was the last thing connecting him to his deceased spouse?

Or when a client calls in hysterics because she just ran over her pet?

Helpless? Defeated? Emotional?

Then you need to take care of you. Experiencing the intense feelings involved in caring for pets and clients in veterinary practice day after day, week after week, without taking time to care for ourselves can be harmful-both personally and professionally.

Neglecting your needs can lead to burnout and/or compassion fatigue, and while the two are sometimes used interchangeably, they are not the same beast. The main difference between the two hinges on the fact that burnout can occur in any industry and is the result of decreased job satisfaction. Compassion fatigue, on the other hand, is only experienced by those in a caregiving position and is driven by empathy.

Charles Figley, PhD, considered by many to be the father of compassion fatigue, describes it as “a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper."

You can use the printable flowchart at the bottom to determine whether you might be experiencing burnout or compassion fatigue.

Learn your ABCs

When I look back on my own career, the hardest thing I've ever had to do was inform my staff of the passing of a former staff member I had recently let go from the organization. A gauntlet of self-inflicted guilt ensued as well as a vicious tug-of-war between processing the stories and trauma I was hearing from my staff and processing my own.

There's no way I could have survived this point in my career if I had not known the ABCs (Awareness, Balance, Connection) of preventing compassion fatigue.

“A” is for awareness. Awareness is, in my opinion, the most important of the three because it functions as an early detection system. To increase awareness, look back on experiences in your career that led to frustration or irritation and try to identify triggers, such as having to perform multiple euthanasias and dealing with difficult or non-compliant clients. Knowing your triggers can make you less vulnerable to compassion fatigue.

“B” is for balance. Work-life balance and self-care deserve more attention in veterinary medicine. Time for both work and home helps veterinary professionals perform at their highest potential, benefitting clients, patients and the practice as a whole. Practices can help minimize the strains of the veterinary profession on staff members, but individuals can take an active role too.

Ask yourself the following questions: Do I make time for the things I enjoy doing? What's a hobby I've always wanted to do but never made time for? What could I do to feel more relaxed? Make space for things that make you happy outside of work, and you'll have a leg up on compassion fatigue.

“C” is for connections. Personal support and connections were vital as I navigated the traumatic experience I described above. My staff and my administration were constantly checking on me, and my wife, who also works in the veterinary field, gave me the space I needed but then jumped to my aid when I was ready to talk. Several people in my personal and professional circle overcame the stigma of talking about feelings and were there for me when I needed them.

Identify a potential accountability partner at your practice. Ideally, this is someone who's not afraid to talk about feelings or let you know you're not acting like yourself. This is someone you can turn to when you need to vent or talk about a difficult case or client. Build and maintain your connections now so you're ready when traumatic and frustrating situations arise.

The psychological impact of our work is becoming an epidemic. For things to change, we need to start treating our psychological state like a metric that matters and take elementary steps to protect our mental health.

Illustration by Sarah Dowdy

Brandon Hess, CVPM, CCFP, is an associate consultant for Tassava Consulting and Management Support.