Being a veterinarian requires many skills, abilities, expertise, and most of all, a love for animals and devotion to their wellbeing. However, the high levels of compassion and empathy also align with increased risk for compassion fatigue — defined by the AVMA as “the result of a medical caregiver’s unique relationship with a patient, through which empathy allows the caregiver to ‘take on the burden’ of the ill or dying patient.”
We asked our Facebook audience to vote “yes” or “no” to this question: “Has compassion fatigue ever made you consider leaving the profession?” Almost three-quarters — or 71% —answered “yes.”
This is a loaded question considering all the aspects of the veterinary profession that can be a drag on a veterinarian’s emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing. These include an intense, prolonged educational track, student loan debt, competition for employment, and a job with initial low pay and long hours. With so many factors contributing to a veterinarian’s compassion fatigue and burnout, including concerns over the lives and wellbeing of their patients, veterinarians suffer a great deal from the negative impacts caused by these two traumas. To consider leaving the profession means the lows can really affect the veterinarian as much as the highs.
The AVMA states “this insidious disorder can cause problems both psychological and physical.” Common symptoms of compassion fatigue can include:
• Bottled-up emotions
• Sadness and apathy
• Inability to get pleasure from activities that previously were enjoyable
• Difficulty concentrating
• Feeling mentally and physically tired
• Chronic physical ailments
• Voicing excessive complaints about your job, your manager(s) and/or co-workers
• Lack of self-care, including poor hygiene and a drop-off in your appearance
• Recurring nightmares or flashbacks
• Substance abuse or other compulsive behaviors such as over-eating or gambling”
Most veterinarians get so caught up in caring for others — clients, patients, and staff — that they forget to take care of themselves. Self-care is vital in everyday life and in combatting compassion fatigue. Through caring for yourself, you will also be positively impacting your practice and patients.
Here are some tips for personal approaches to can help alleviate compassion fatigue.
• Get adequate sleep
• Practice good nutrition
• Get regular physical activity
• Take alone time
• Engage in meditation or mindfulness-based stress reduction
• Engage with co-workers to share successes and misfortunes alike
• Build and use a support network outside of your practice
• Maintain a balance between work-life and home-life and over-caring and under-caring