Recognizing and Managing Compassion Fatigue

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Veterinary professionals, like most caregivers, tend to be naturally compassionate people, but sometimes caring too much can hurt. It’s hard to remain emotionally unaffected by the trauma your patients (and their owners) are experiencing. Seeing and caring for severely injured and acutely ill animals day after day – some of which are untreatable, while others might be medically treatable but still need to be euthanized because their owners cannot afford treatment – takes its toll.

Many of the symptoms of compassion fatigue are similar to those of burnout: physical, mental and emotional exhaustion; an inability to find meaning in your life or work; and decreased interactions with others. Compassion fatigue can also manifest as irritability with others. You may continue to communicate in a professional manner with your clients but take out your frustration on your colleagues, family members or even be less compassionate with patients. Understandably, this is not a healthy outlet.

The importance of work/life balance and self-care

So how do you keep compassion fatigue at bay? Self-care is critical. What people do away from work to take care of themselves and recharge their batteries varies widely from individual to individual, of course. It could be running, reading, meditating, watching a movie, spending time with friends – anything that helps you clear your mind and work through the stress of a difficult shift on the floor. Keeping your life in balance is important in preventing and treating compassion fatigue. Workaholics tend to be particularly at risk because a lack of time away from their stressful job forces them to eliminate the very things that would help them recharge and recover.

If you think you might be suffering from compassion fatigue or burnout, go to http://www.proqol.org/ProQol_Test.html and take the free self-administered online test called the Professional Quality of Life Scale (ProQOL). This tool will give you unbiased feedback about your situation and provide the self-awareness necessary to motivate you to improve your own self-care.

In general, maintaining the fundamentals of a healthy lifestyle – regular exercise, a healthy diet, positive social interactions, making time for hobbies and adequate sleep – will help make you more resilient and less physically and emotionally vulnerable to the effects of your patients’ distress. Beyond restoring a healthy balance in your life, the following measures can help if you are experiencing symptoms of compassion fatigue:

  • Be kind to yourself. Recognize your symptoms and don’t try to just keep powering through. Ignoring problems rarely makes them go away.
  • Educate yourself about compassion fatigue. There is a great deal of helpful information available on the Internet. Symptoms and treatments can vary, so find suggestions that resonate with your personal circumstances.
  • Regularly escape from the intensity of your work through recreation, creative therapies or other healthy diversions. These escapes are essential to replenish between shifts.
  • Don’t medicate yourself with drugs or alcohol. Get professional help if necessary to get back on track.

Helping staff members cope

Practice managers can play a key role in helping their employees cope with compassion fatigue. If you’re a manager, you don’t want to see your staff members suffer emotionally, experience burnout or leave the profession.

What can you do to help prevent and deal with compassion fatigue in the clinic? The first step is to be aware of and alert to the symptoms. This is particularly critical when the overall work environment is being affected. For example, sometimes compassion fatigue may cause a staff member to demonstrate a lack of compassion toward his or her colleagues, or even worse, a patient. Left unchecked, this behavior can lead to a toxic culture in the clinic. If an employee is being unfairly critical of a colleague, try to help him or her identify and deal with the larger issue behind the immediate irritation.

Second, it’s essential that staff members have an outlet to talk about the challenges they face and how they feel – how sad it is, for example, when an animal comes in that can’t be treated for financial reasons, or how difficult it is to see a pet suffering because the owner is taking too long to make a decision about care. Veterinary professionals need to have the opportunity to discuss these issues and figure out ways to overcome emotionally challenging situations, because cases like these are draining and can wear employees down over time.

Sometimes it’s helpful to let the team spend time together without managers, just talking, with no agenda. At DoveLewis we recently held an art therapy session for a team and asked them to discuss problems they were having with clients. Without prompting, the conversation naturally turned to staff members recognizing how client issues had affected their own behavior toward each other.

Finally, it’s important for you as a manager to model the behavior you want to see in your staff members and support good self-care during their shifts. Emphasize the value of self-care and set a good example when it comes to taking breaks to hydrate, eat and get a little breath of fresh air. Try not to schedule too many extra shifts so that they have time to rest and recharge their batteries and return to work refreshed.

Preventing, coping with and healing from compassion fatigue is an ongoing process, not a finite project. It requires continuing attention, but it’s worth the effort on both a personal and managerial level. Helping employees understand how their jobs affect them emotionally and giving them the tools they need to deal with the difficult issues they face will lead to enhanced well-being, greater job satisfaction and improved performance.

Updated: 2014-11-25 08:00:00

Author: Enid Traisman, M.S.W., C.T. is the founding director of Pet Loss Support Services at DoveLewis Emergency Animal Hospital, a nonprofit 24-hour emergency and intensive care animal hospital in Portland, Oregon, and a contributor to On the Floor @Dove, the hospital’s online training tool for veterinary professionals. She facilitates support groups and educates the community and veterinary staff about euthanasia, grief, memorializing and compassion fatigue.