Burnout and Compassion Fatigue in Veterinary Medicine

Caitlin Vaughn, RVT

Copyright CV, RVT 2016. Not for Resuse.

Experiencing occupational burnout and compassion fatigue can occur without much warning. Careers in veterinary medicine can be very rewarding but can also take their toll on emotional health. Surrounded by ill, injured, and dying animals and working in a stressful environment, it is important for veterinary professionals to take the necessary steps to avoid falling into unhealthy patterns that can lead to burnout and compassion fatigue.

Burnout usually results from stress in the workplace. Katherine Dobbs, RVT explains that, “Burnout is situational and a consequence of stresses in the work environment. An overly demanding boss, long hours, and inadequate pay and benefits are examples of stressors that can cause an employee to experience job burnout.” Since veterinary personnel are already working in a sometime stressful and emotional environment, it doesn’t take much to reach a tipping point. Small amounts of added stress can mean the difference between loving what you do and loathing what you do. Not to mention that burnout can also lead to emotional exhaustion, alienation from job-related activities, and reduced performance according to Dr. Jennifer Brandt, PhD, LISW, a veterinary social worker.

Luckily there are ways to avoid and relieve burnout. Since it is a situational condition, changing your situation can provide the relief needed to start enjoying work again. This can mean changing jobs, changing the number of hours worked, changing your shifts/coworkers or changing your work-life balance. Taking some time off can have a dramatic effect. It is important to always take care of ourselves first and foremost. A good nurse puts the patient before her or himself; a great nurse realizes that in order to provide outstanding patient care, one must take care of themselves physically, mentally and emotionally.

Compassion fatigue is different than burnout. Dr. Brandt explains that it is an emotional and physical burden that is created by the trauma of helping others in distress. This leads to a reduced capacity for empathy and often a decreased desire to continue working in the veterinary industry. Symptoms of compassion fatigue can include: emotional numbness, social withdrawal and avoidance, indifference, sleeping & eating difficulties, anxiety, chronic illness, feeling overwhelmed even with simple tasks and feelings, as well as feeling emotional pain like neglection, vulnerability, hopelessness, or misunderstood.

Unlike burnout, compassion fatigue is not situational. It is brought on in response to the patients and/or the clients. Taking time off or finding a new hospital to work will not cure the compassion fatigue with which you may be suffering. The best way to combat it is by addressing the issue face on and often times this means asking for help. Veterinary social workers and mental health professionals can help to relieve many of the symptoms of compassion fatigue and start on the road to recovery.

Burnout and compassion fatigue can affect all of us in different ways and finding the remedy can sometimes feel impossible. Reaching out to others can help; talking about ways we have overcome these obstacles can be enlightening for veterinary professionals who are recognizing that they are affected. The first successful step in combating burnout and compassion fatigue however is learning the tools to prevent it. Breathe. Take time each day to get out of your head and have a moment of peace. Keep an open line of communication with your coworkers so stress doesn’t build up. If you’re unhappy with your current working conditions, change them and find a new job. Get plenty of rest, don’t forget to take time off regularly, and find a healthy balance between work and life.

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Title Photo: Copyright CV, RVT 2016. No Reuse Permitted.