Compassion Fatigue in the Veterinary Industry – Understanding the Symptoms and Signs

by Wendy Jureski / June 8, 2017

If you’re a veterinary professional, you’ve probably heard the term “compassion fatigue.” That’s because it’s a prominent condition that impacts thousands of veterinarians and their support staff every single day. In fact, the odds are high that if you are not experiencing the symptoms, somebody you work with is.

Compassion fatigue is something that I am incredibly passionate about changing within our industry. I recently conducted a research study among support staff to find out what these individuals feel is causing compassion fatigue among our ranks. I believe that the findings of this research are invaluable to clinics across the country. Knowing what compassion fatigue is, what the signs and symptoms are, as well as what can be done to combat it, is an important start to changing this condition that is plaguing our industry.
 

What exactly is compassion fatigue?

Traumatologist Dr. Charles Figley defines compassion fatigue as “a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.” So, we know exactly what it is, but how does that relate to veterinary professionals?

In short, compassion fatigue encompasses all of the negative emotions associated with our profession, and how we handle those feelings. In its simplest terms, compassion fatigue can be thought of as the opposite of compassion / job satisfaction.
 

Is compassion fatigue the same as burnout?

Technically, no, although the terms are frequently used interchangeably. Burnout actually occurs when compassion fatigue is left unaddressed and, in turn, becomes much harder to treat. Burnout could be a factor in the high turnover rate within our profession. That is why identifying compassion fatigue as a precursor is so important.
 

Compassion fatigue poses a real threat to support staff

According to recent studies, 16% of veterinarians have considered suicide, and 2.5% have acted upon it successfully. No comparable studies have yet been conducted upon support staff, but the findings of the survey I undertook earlier this year tell us that there is certainly valid cause for concern.

Of the more than 500 support staff personnel that I interviewed, most of whom were technicians, a shocking 74.73% felt they were experiencing or had experienced compassion fatigue in the past year, and 43.51% stated they had felt suicidal in relation to their job within the past two years. One respondent actually admitted to feeling so low that he had calculated his own Euthasol dosage. Another respondent felt that only her dog knew how hard it was for her to get out of bed in the mornings. Situations such as these show a need for change within this profession.

Unfortunately, some of the contributing factors, such as euthanasia and long hours combined with what many consider to be a low wage, are just part of the job description for support staff. However, one of the greatest contributing factors is something that we have the power to change.
 

A healthy workplace culture promotes a healthier state of mind

Bullying, a lack of respect, and poor treatment from both management and clients ranked high on the list of workplace-culture contributors. So, how can you tell if your employees or practice colleagues are being worn down by poor culture or any of the other factors mentioned above? Look out for these signs:
 

Personal

  • Personality change
  • Anger and irritability
  • Tearfulness
  • Lethargy (with physical and emotional exhaustion)
  • Physical deterioration
  • Accident proneness
  • Memory loss or forgetfulness
  • A negative self-image
  • Interpersonal problems and increasing isolation
  • Skepticism, cynicism, embitterment and resentfulness
  • Reduced sympathy and empathy for others
  • Mood swings, anxiety, depression and expression of suicidal thoughts

Professional

  • Client and staff complaints about changing attitudes or behaviors
  • Loss of efficiency and reliability
  • Indecision
  • Inappropriate clinical judgement
  • Compromised patient and client care
  • Unpredictable work habits and patterns
  • Excessive time at work or increased sick time and time away from work
  • Avoidance of certain patients, clients, and euthanasia
  • Heavy “wastage” of drugs

Practice

  • High turnover rate
  • Decreased customer satisfaction with respect to customer service
  • Attendance issues
  • Declining employee morale

 
Next week, I’ll be sharing practical steps you can take within your practice to create a healthier environment. For now, here’s a simple step you can take right away:
 

Let your staff know there’s help to be found

The Veterinary Support Staff Unleashed Facebook group, VSPN’s Support4Support initiative, and AMVA are all great resources. Consider posting a ‘HELP AVAILABLE’ notice in your staff room, listing these resources, along with the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.

I am also always open to questions or comments, so don’t hesitate to reach out to me directly at wendy@savingfidosfriends.com.

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