Idiopathic Issues

Compassion Fatigue Prevention and Self-Care

Posted by Lori Hehn on March 5, 2018 at 8:37 AM
Lori Hehn
Lori Hehn is a practicing veterinarian and a contributor and content manager with XPrep Learning Solutions. She has a drive for continual learning and enjoys interacting with veterinary and vet tech students. She also writes veterinary learning books for children.

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We have heard a lot about compassion fatigue in the last couple of years when it comes to the veterinary community. It is a very important topic to address if you work in the veterinary field.

What does Compassion Fatigue really mean? There are many definitions to what this means. In applying it to veterinary medicine, this is what it means for me.

Compassion fatigue is the exhaustion and burn-out that you can feel after repeated unfortunate situations which cause you stress and in which you feel responsible about an animal’s well being.

Compassion Fatigue is something that most often affects caregivers. In our case, it centers around the constant care and attention that we give to animals. As we all know, being a veterinarian does not always involve caring for cute and healthy puppies and kittens. We are faced with challenging cases day in and day out, sometimes encompassing traumas, death, or neglected animals. This starts to take a toll on those with a tender heart. Mix finances in with this (or lack of finances) and you have yourself the perfect storm.

This is something that may affect you in general practice. Those who work in a shelter environment can especially be vulnerable to this. While I am in small animal practice, this can affect those on the large animal side as well. Compassion fatigue can quickly lead to burn-out, which is very common in our profession. If you can recognize it and learn to manage or prevent against it, this will help you in the long-run.

According to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, if you think you might be suffering from this condition, you likely are. They suggest that awareness is the first step to healing. If you are aware, then you can take the appropriate steps to help yourself.

How can I deal with Compassion Fatigue? Here are some things you can do:

  • Try to separate your personal life from your professional life. We all bring thoughts home from work, but if you are losing sleep over cases, this is an issue. New graduates tend to do this a lot. The longer you are in practice, the easier it will become to separate home life and work life. Reading non-veterinary material before bed helps. A good book can get your mind off work and help you to sleep easier.
  • Talk to someone. My husband is also a veterinarian, so this makes it good and bad for us. It is easy to vent as we both fully understand and can sympathize, but we tend to feed off of each other’s frustration.  So, I call my mom to vent when needed. Find that person you can talk to about hard cases so that you can release it and move on.
  • Know that you cannot save the world. As veterinarians, we are obviously very caring individuals. We want to take on the burden of the world. I have to tell myself that I cannot love someone’s pet more than they do, and I cannot hold myself responsible for those who are irresponsible.
  • My husband’s grandmother had a saying, “ Do the best you can; the angels can do no better.” You just do the best you can for each pet. They are the priority and it is our oath to prevent suffering. Even with difficult euthanasia situations, just remember you are allowing the pet to be at peace. This can be especially hard in shelter medicine when you constantly see cases of neglect or cruelty, or when healthy animals must be euthanized because there is no home for them and no more resources to continue to care for them. Remember you are there for the greater good. Without you, these pets would suffer.
  • Know that you will have good and bad days in practice. Focus on the good cases and the pets that you are able to help. Focus on those clients who are so appreciative of you and the care you give to their pets.
  • It's ok to say no. Don't be pressured into doing something that you feel is not in the best interest of the client or pet. Practice empathy and be prepared to provide options, but you live with your own decisions. This doesn't just apply to medical care for pets. It applies to being pulled in a million different directions in your personal life as well. Be mindful of your own needs and schedule, and say no when you are unable or don't want to participate in something extra.
  • Find something you love to do outside of vet med. We cannot live and breath veterinary medicine 24/7, but it sometimes feels like it encompasses our entire life. Whether it is art, gardening, biking, hiking, etc. find something that you can do to clear your mind. This is extremely important for self-care.
  • Don't get bogged down by the negative! Sometimes if feels like our profession is trending toward the negative. Being a veterinarian is a wonderful thing, and please don't lose sight of why you fell in love with this profession in the first place. The positives greatly outweigh the negatives. We create our own experiences, and perception and attitude go a very long way in our own happiness. Don't let yourself get sucked into negativity. You have to manage your life and take care of yourself so you may continue to enjoy what you do and care for the patients you love!

You are never alone! Please reach out for help if you find yourself having negative thoughts or need someone to talk to. There is also a Facebook group called the Veterinary Compassion Fatigue Initiative you may follow that is dedicated to combating compassion fatigue.

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Topics: Compassion Fatigue, Suicide, Stress Management

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