Compassion Fatigue

September/October 2009 California Veterinarian

by Doug Fakkema

Remember that first day on the job, how wondrous to be actually doing what was for so long just a dream? Somebody pinch me, I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this!

But for some veterinary professionals, before long that sense of “I can’t believe they’re paying me to do this” has turned into “I’m tired of my job!” Same job, same person but something has changed. The change for some is caused by the stress of emotional trauma: the repeated pain of seeing animals who are hurt, sick, dying and dead; and the repeated frustration of those few clients who seem to care so little for their pets. These traumas are cumulative and if not resolved soon, can and will eat us for lunch.

The trusted family veterinarian quits his practice and announces he will henceforth be selling Amway products.

A veterinarian friend and training colleague is admitted to rehab for ketamine addiction. His family and his employer give him two choices: 21-day in-patient treatment or the highway.

A veterinarian is brought up on disciplinary charges for mistreating a patient.

A veterinarian injects sodium pentobarbital into her cephalic vein; her lifelong passion to help animals snuffed out.

The above examples are real, they all happened. They are in part characteristic of what is variously called: caregiver’s disease, secondary traumatic stress, vicarious trauma, lateral violence, repetitive stress of the heart, or simply “compassion fatigue.” The Internet is stuffed with websites devoted to the subject.

Simply put, compassion fatigue is what happens to some caring and compassionate individuals as a result of their work on behalf of animals (or people). They care and they care and they care some more and then, their compassion exhausted, they begin to care less and less and less. Untreated, unmanaged, compassion fatigue contributes to burnout. Compassion fatigue is accompanied by loss of compassion and feelings of fear, dread and loathing for what once brought joy.

Compassion fatigue can be exhibited by a wide variety of signs and symptoms, including:

  • depression
  • obsessive, negative and unproductive thoughts (worry) about work
  • anger
  • loss of concentration
  • isolation from family and friends
  • unhealthy behaviors such as: overeating, excessive drinking or gambling
  • detachment from patients and/or clients
  • chronic colds or digestive problems
  • disturbing dreams or nightmares
  • disturbing memories of a past event

The term compassion fatigue was first used in a book written by Charles R. Figley, PhD and published in 1995. Dr. Figley has subsequently written two other books on compassion fatigue, including Compassion Fatigue in the Animal Care Community (co-authored with Robert G. Roop, PhD) in which there is an entire chapter devoted to the veterinary profession.

What to do?

It’s ironic that veterinary professionals are so effective at caring for animals and others yet they all too often neglect their own needs. Veterinary professionals must care as much for themselves as they do for others. They must get away from work, not just physically but also emotionally. It does no good to go home only to be plagued by worrisome thoughts of work. Worry can be defined as an obsessive, negative and non-productive thought. Worry: has it ever solved anything? No, it only serves to keep us rooted in yesterday or tomorrow.

Sometimes the best way to stop worrying is to replace those thoughts with something enjoyable; something that puts us into the moment. Only when we are in the moment can we truly have fun and enjoy life. Activities that put us into the moment include: spending time with family and friends, meditation, prayer, walks in the woods, roller coasters, rock climbing, motorcycles, gardening, music, reading, video games – the list is endless. Taking time out to enjoy such activities is called “self care”.

When emotional traumas inevitably occur they must be debriefed quickly, preferably within 24-72 hours. Debriefing is best accomplished by talking about the incident with a trusted colleague or friend. It is best to debrief with someone who understands, someone with a similar base of experience. Talking about it can and will ease the painful memory. For individuals who are mired in the depths of compassion fatigue and who find themselves isolated from others, a professional counselor can help immensely by providing a sympathetic ear and helping process traumas.

That first day on the job feeling will never return, but the powerful feelings of accomplishment and fulfillment will stay throughout your entire career as long as you practice self care. Self care reduces stress and permits the caregiver to help and be of use for as long as he or she chooses. Truly, self care is the antidote for burnout.

Mr. Doug Fakkema of Charleston, SC has conducted over a thousand technical workshops for animal care and control agencies around the world since 1973. Topics he teaches include: euthanasia by injection, compassion fatigue, chemical capture, humane and safe animal handling, and basic canine and feline behavior. Mr. Fakkema is an experienced trainer and facilitator who has worked with all types of organizations.


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