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Chapter 4

Compassion Fatigue and Burnout: Don’t Let Them Win!

Rebecca Rose, AAS, CVT

We are all candidates for burnout and compassion fatigue. Fortunately, there are strategies we can use to head them off. But first, we must understand the causes, symptoms, and differences between these conditions.

WHAT IS BURNOUT?

Burnout is related to the environment or the circumstances around your work. As an example, you may dread going to the practice because the team is inefficient, there is little accountability, you log too many overtime hours, or other appropriate systems are not in place to support a satisfactory work environment.

Signs of Burnout

  • Exhaustion
  • Negativity toward tasks
  • Poor work attitude
  • Difficulty concentrating

Combating burnout can best be addressed by creating a healthy practice culture and workplace environment.

Elements of a Healthy Culture That Can Help Combat Burnout

  • Establishing strong work and personal boundaries
  • Incorporating best management practices
  • Being properly staffed
  • Instituting effective training programs
  • Nurturing accountability

WHAT IS COMPASSION FATIGUE?

Compassion fatigue is related to the trauma experienced in the care we provide. Enduring day after day of dying patients; grieving or angry pet owners; and financial, diagnostic, or treatment constraints surrounding an animal’s care wears on even the most seasoned caregivers in any part of the veterinary hospital.

Even in the most positive work environment or practice culture, compassion fatigue affects every team member to some extent, whether we recognize it or not.

Signs of Compassion Fatigue

  • Lack of job satisfaction
  • Avoidance of coworkers or clients
  • Increased use of alcohol and drugs
  • Missing work, excessive use of sick days
  • Intrusive imagery (reoccurring dreams of trauma or emotional scenes)

Combating compassion fatigue is best done by taking time to focus on ourselves.

Internally Focused Actions That Can Help Combat Compassion Fatigue

  • Establishing healthy work and personal boundaries
  • Debriefing with the team after a traumatic experience
  • Discussing the demands and effects of compassion fatigue openly
  • Supporting self-care and healthy personal habits
  • Regularly assessing our levels of stress and following stress reduction strategies

WHY IS BURNOUT EASIER TO TALK ABOUT THAN COMPASSION FATIGUE?

Because burnout is directed externally at the work environment, it’s much easier to discuss, and it can become commonplace to complain to our coworkers, who will often validate our dissatisfaction. Clearly, this can lead to a negative workplace atmosphere and exacerbate a sinking culture.

In the case of compassion fatigue, we can perceive these feelings as a character flaw or a lack of commitment to the profession. Sharing them takes courage and trust in our coworkers. Realize that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

HOW DO OTHER CAREGIVING PROFESSIONS MANAGE BURNOUT AND COMPASSION FATIGUE?

In human medicine, where there is more research compiled on these topics, nurses, doctors, and medical organizations have taken a three-pronged approach to managing occupational stress:

  1. Organizational responsibility to care for staff
  2. A commitment among the staff to support each other
  3. A personal responsibility for self-care

There is no reason veterinary hospitals can’t do the same.

HOW TO GET STARTED

  • Objectively assess your stress level by taking the “Life Stress Test” offered by the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project (www.compassionfatigue.org).
  • Work through the Stressors and Relievers worksheet. Identify your personal and work-related stressors and ways in which you enjoy relaxing and rejuvenating (http://catalystvetpc.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Identify-relievers-stressors.pdf).

If you feel you have reached a state of burnout or compassion fatigue in which you are overwhelmed, thwarted with anxiety, using drugs to curb the pain, or considering hurting yourself or attempting suicide:

  • Seek help! Find support within your veterinary hospital or beyond.
  • Call, text, or online message the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255).
  • Ask if your veterinary team has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and use it.

RESOURCES

  • Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project. Life Stress Test (http://www.compassionfatigue.org/pages/lifestress.html).
  • Huggard, Peter and Jane. When the Caring Gets Tough: Compassion Fatigue and Veterinary Care (http://www.compassion fatigue.org/pages/HuggardVetScript.pdf). 2008.
  • Rose, Rebecca. An Epiphany: Burnout versus Compassion Fatigue (http://catalystvetpc.com/an-epiphany-burnout-versus -compassion-fatigue). 2016.
  • Rose, Rebecca. Self-Care Tips for Veterinary Team Members (http://catalystvetpc.com/self-care-for-veterinary-team -members/). 2017.
  • Scheidegger, Julie. Burnout, Compassion Fatigue, Depression—What’s the Difference? (http://veterinarynews.dvm360 .com/burnout-compassion-fatigue-depression-what-s-difference). 2015.
  • Shaw, Jane. Compassion Fatigue: Healing the Healer (https://cms.evsrl.it/SocSpec/SiteTailorCommon/ShowBinary.asp x?id=4124).
  • Tartakovski, Margarita. 7 Tips to Setting Boundaries at Work (https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2014/03/10/7-tips -for-setting-boundaries-at-work). 2014.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rebecca Rose has spent her entire career within the veterinary community as a veterinary technician, practice manager, and industry consultant. She is an award-winning technician, author, and leader within the profession with a passion for helping veterinary teams thrive.

Take-Home Message: All veterinary team members can be affected by burnout and compassion fatigue to some extent. We must not ignore the importance of taking the necessary steps to help mitigate their effects on us.

Want to share with the entire team?

Pick up free copies of AAHA's Guide to Veterinary Practice Team Wellbeing and the roundtable discussion, The Link Between a Health Workplace Culture and Optimal Personal Wellbeing at these locations:

  • AAHA@VMX ( Rosen Centre Hotel)
  • Health & Wellbeing Center ( VMX Expo Hall)
  • AAHA booth ( VMX Expo Hall)
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