Lasting in the Veterinary Profession
Participating in open and honest conversations about compassion fatigue is one of the first steps toward addressing mental health issues in veterinary medicine.
From the Field shares insights from Banfield Pet Hospital veterinary team members. Drawing from the nationwide practice’s extensive research, as well as findings from its electronic veterinary medical records database and more than 8 million annual pet visits, this column is intended to explore topics and spark conversations relevant to veterinary practices that ultimately help create a better world for pets.
As veterinarians, we do not always realize that, because of the complexity of our work, we are at high risk for compassion fatigue. The constant roller coaster of emotions that comes from euthanizing a long-time patient, then celebrating a new puppy exam, followed by treating a complex medical issue, creates extreme emotional highs and lows throughout the day. Because of this, there continues to be research into the causes of burnout, compassion fatigue, and the higher-than-usual rates of mental health concerns in veterinary medicine.1
A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed approximately 1 in 3 veterinarians has anxiety and 1 in 6 has considered suicide, with a suicide death rate 2 to 3 times higher than the general population.2 These findings are startling—and mean that it is very likely you work with someone who is struggling and/or are suffering yourself.
By bringing this conversation to light, we hope to destigmatize these topics and help break down the barriers to getting help.
Compassion fatigue can manifest itself in many ways. Burnout—or the detachment from work and other meaningful relationships—along with trouble sleeping, increased alcohol intake, depression, and psychosomatic complaints can all be indicators of compassion fatigue.
In addition to caring for yourself, it is also important to lean into conversations with your peers when you recognize it in them. They may not yet have the tools to deal with this, and we owe it to each other to help. As a community, we need to get better at recognizing, destigmatizing, and seeking help around this important topic—it could literally save a life.
It is also important to realize that compassion fatigue is not something that we can remove from our profession altogether—it’s a byproduct of the work we do. As doctors, we look to treat and cure, but we cannot cure compassion fatigue. However, we can manage it. We need to learn how to do this job and care for ourselves at the same time. This takes planning and practice.
CREATING A CARE PLAN
To help prevent emotional distress, create a care plan with the goal of taking care of your whole self to ensure resilience under tough circumstances. A successful plan enables us to release blocked emotions that we carry with us throughout the day. This plan should be multi-faceted and ever-changing as part of our work. Start by recognizing the 5 key elements of health and wellbeing: healthy body, healthy mind, healthy career, healthy community, and healthy finances. When we take time consider each element, we create a care plan that can help us face compassion fatigue.
L.A.S.T. IN THE VETERINARY PROFESSION
The care plan can be a great long-term tool to help maintain your health and wellbeing. But given we cannot take the risk of compassion fatigue out of the work we do every day, it is also important that we have tools and resources to help us in moments of need.
One such tool is the acronym L.A.S.T., which stands for Listen, Accept, Seek, and Test. Remember it by thinking, “If I want to last in this profession, I need to L.A.S.T.” Running through the steps outlined below can help unblock your emotions in the moment.
- As you leave an exam room after an emotional case, encounter with an angry client, or euthanasia, your first instinct may be to compartmentalize the emotions you’re feeling to get through the day. Our profession requires a certain level of skill around compartmentalization, but it still takes a toll on your wellbeing. Next time this happens, try taking a micro break, and Listen to your body. Maybe your back is hurting or you’re hungry, sad, or frustrated. All these things are real and need to be addressed.
- After listening, it’s time to Accept. This may seem abstract; however, we often judge ourselves harshly by telling ourselves things like: “I’m the doctor, I shouldn’t cry,” or “I have too much to do to stop for lunch.” It is often hard in our busy days to allow ourselves to accept how we are really doing, but it is critical to practice accepting without judgment.
- From there, Seek a plan. Instead of judging yourself for how you feel, think about a possible solution. Maybe you need to go cry, seek support from a colleague, take a longer break, eat some food, take 5 minutes to meditate, or stretch. The important thing is not that you fix how you feel immediately, but that you’re trying something. Whatever it is that you are feeling, whether you judge yourself or not, is real. When you ignore that fact and do nothing, your emotions and physical injuries can start to compile.
- Next, seek a solution and Test it out. If what you tried didn’t seem to help, try something different next time. Compassion fatigue is not a static condition, so the solution will not be static either.
It is important to remember that L.A.S.T. isn’t just needed in extreme circumstances. Small moments and emotions build up over time, and the better you get at unblocking the smaller-scale emotions as they arise, the better your chances are at lasting in this profession.
As we continue to research and understand compassion fatigue within the veterinary profession, we also need to start addressing what we can. Defining compassion fatigue and learning how to recognize it is the first step. Lean into difficult conversations with colleagues when you notice the symptoms. Create a sustainable care plan to take care of your whole self and prevent the compounding effects of compassion fatigue. Also, be sure to act in the moment when you are most stressed by using the acronym L.A.S.T.
We help animals and families for a living, but we can’t continue to help others without first helping ourselves. Those called to this profession should not only be able to survive but also thrive.
- Figley C, Roop R. Compassion Fatigue in the Animal-Care Community. Washington, D.C.: Humane Society Press; 2006.
- Kabat-Zinn J. Full Catastrophe Living: How to cope with stress, pain and illness, using mindfulness meditation. London: Piatkus Books; 2001.
- Kabat-Zinn J. Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. London: Hachette Books; 2005.
- Dana D. Conflict Resolution. New York: McGraw-Hill Education; 2001.
- Rosenberg M. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press; 2015.
- Fisher R, Ury W, Patton B. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. New York: Penguin Books; 1991.
- Calm – Mindful mediations and help falling asleep
- Headspace – Mindful meditation
- SAM – Self-help anxiety management
- Happify – Evidence-based activities and games to reduce stress and negative emotions
1. Bartram D J, Baldwin DS. Veterinary surgeons and suicide: a structured review of possible influences on increased risk. Vet Rec 2010;166(13):388-397.
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Notes from the Field: Prevalence of Risk Factors for Suicide Among Veterinarians — United States, 2014. cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6405a6.htm. Accessed June 2020.