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Is your New Year a blue year in veterinary practice?
Use these five tips to overcome compassion fatigue and burnout (and learn to tell the difference).
As caregivers, we sometimes put the needs of our patients and clients above our own. And this well-meaning behavior can lead to compassion fatigue and burnout.
How do you tell the difference? Compassion fatigue has been described by traumatologist Dr. Charles Figley 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.”
The signs of compassion fatigue:
> Exhaustion (emotional, mental or physical)
> Isolation from others (self-imposed)
> Emotions “leaking out”
> Blaming others and complaining
> Difficulty focusing on tasks
> Nightmares or flashbacks of traumatic events
> Apathy; inability to find pleasure and purpose in activities that were once fun and meaningful to you
> Denial about symptoms
Compassion fatigue may lead to clinical depression, substance abuse, chronic illnesses and reckless or compulsive behaviors, such as gambling, overeating, excessive spending and so on.
When compassion fatigue affects multiple team members in the practice, it will take a negative toll on workplace culture. It's important to recognize the symptoms of burnout or compassion fatigue as soon as possible so the healing can begin.
What is burnout?
Burnout is the result of cumulative stress in the workplace. Ask yourself these questions:
> Am I pushing myself too hard at work?
> Am I working long hours without adequate breaks?
> Am I picking up the slack for absent or ineffective coworkers?
> Do I feel exhausted, frustrated or even apathetic?
If your “yeses” outweigh your “nos,” you may be experiencing burnout.
Burnout not only affects caregivers; it can affect anyone who works. But when caregivers experience burnout, they may become more vulnerable to compassion fatigue.
In veterinary medicine, we find ourselves going above and beyond to help both pets and people in distress. It's not just about euthanasia and major physical trauma either. We see day-to-day traumatic things like chronically ill animals, clients with major financial concerns and crowded lobbies full of stressed out pets and people. Dealing with these “little” traumas over time can lead to compassion fatigue. Often, our minds deal with this by tuning it out, and we become apathetic.
What you can do
1. Get educated. Learn about compassion fatigue and burnout. Visit compassionfatigue.org to learn more about compassion fatigue and find tips to help you overcome this condition.
2. Talk to management. You are under no obligation to share personal issues with anyone at work. But it may be helpful to talk to your practice manager or supervisor, especially if you think your behavior has affected others or your work has visibly suffered.
The conversation might be as simple as saying “I believe I'm experiencing compassion fatigue or burnout. This may explain my behavior recently. I am working to make changes in my life to get better. Here's what I need.” Go on to explain what you need from management-for example, schedule changes, shorter hours or maybe even just a second chance to prove yourself.
Of course, there's no guarantee that managers can accommodate your requests. But most managers will try to help. This may also prompt your manager to look at the practice as a whole and work to improve the culture, if needed. What your manager can't do, however, is to assist you with your personal compassion fatigue or burnout issues. That is up to you-or, if you wish, a professional.
3. Seek professional help. There's no shame in seeking the help of a professional. Though some people can overcome compassion fatigue and burnout on their own, many find that professional help works best.
Some veterinary practices provide confidential assistance programs for employees-often through the payroll company. These programs usually allow access to short-term counseling services that can help you get on the right path.
If your workplace doesn't offer this type of program, or if you prefer not to go that route, you may also find counseling services through your health insurance provider. You might even ask family or close friends to recommend a good therapist.
4. Make yourself a priority. To avoid or overcome compassion fatigue and burnout, you must take good care of yourself. Here are some ways to practice self-care:
> Eat a healthy diet, drink plenty of water and exercise regularly.
> Try out new activities that promote self-care, like yoga and meditation.
> Consider getting regular massages if they help you relax and feel nurtured.
> Spend time bonding with loved ones, including your pets.
> Find the right work-life balance for you.
> At work, practice mindfulness by staying present in the moment and taking note of your body's reaction to emotional or stressful situations.
> Avoid negative self-talk.
> Learn to become self-aware so you can recognize how your behavior affects others.
> Try to lighten the mood and have some fun. For example, you might come to work with a joke of the day. Share it with coworkers when they need it most. During downtimes or when you're cleaning, turn up the music and dance! Ask managers if you can celebrate team members' birthdays. Taking five minutes to surprise someone with a card, a cake and a song can go a long way!
> Thank coworkers for the work they do. Gratitude creates happiness!
5. Set boundaries. It's OK to say “no” sometimes, especially if you're the kind of person who always says “yes.” When you're asked to do something, consider how it will affect you personally. Ask yourself if it overwhelms you or adversely affects a valued aspect of your life. If so, you should say no.
Recovery from burnout and compassion fatigue will not last if you put yourself in the same situations that led to it in the first place. Living as your best self will enable you to be a compassionate and engaged caregiver.
Jenna Stregowski, RVT, has worked in veterinary medicine since 1997. She is a hospital manager in Atlanta, Georgia, and the writer and editor of the website dogs.about.com.