Growing Number of Veterinarians Feel Pinch of Compassion Fatigue

A syndrome described as the “cost of caring,” compassion fatigue is defined as secondary traumatic stress, and it represents a growing problem for veterinary professionals who may experience symptoms of various health problems, addictions and sleeplessness, said Bob Roop, PhD, who has studied the topic for three years. “Veterinarians are as traumatized as any other care-giving profession,” he said.

In a recent study of 800 veterinary professionals, almost 30 percent were at extremely high or moderately high risk for the condition, said Roop, vice president of human resources and education for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He spoke to audiences at the AAHA! Baltimore 2005 yearly conference last week and said that compassion fatigue can be treated with self-management though some cases may require counseling.

Roop stressed that veterinary professionals oftentimes internalize guilty feelings if they cannot cure a condition. For example, professionals worry that they’re lying when they tell patients, ‘it will be okay,’ when they know it won’t or ‘this won’t hurt,’ when they know it will. “Secondary traumatic stress occurs when care givers absorb stress from their patients.” he added.

In addition, “when there is an overemphasis on career there is oftentimes an over-attachment to patients, which drives fatigue,” said Roop. “Veterinarians often spend [too] much time in the profession they love versus spending time with the people they love.”

During the yearly conference, Roop talked about the “Wheel of Life,” an eight-part pie that includes the following sections: life/friends, career, money, health, romance, fun and recreation. He asked participants to select sections that they incorporate into their lives, and then see if their wheel is round or, as Roop said, “if it will roll. It helps people prioritize how they feel about life in general, and whether their lives are out of kilter,” he added. “Then they can start to develop action plans, and choose the behaviors that will drive balance in other areas.”

Roop is coauthoring a book on the subject with Charles Figley, PhD, who has done extensive research on compassion fatigue. It will be published this fall by the HSUS.