Dealing with Veterinary Compassion Fatigue
As a Veterinarian or Vet Nurse – Technician – or Veterinary Team Member, you probably don’t get told this enough; we are deeply grateful that you care so passionately about our pets and animals, and their family members. You are generous, empathetic and your many years of study, as well as your practical experience, makes you an expert that we trust.
As a caregiver you are rewarded in your field in special ways. The ability to heal and help is virtuous and important. You dedicate your life to this work knowing that the magnitude of your efforts and the outcomes are genuinely rewarding at the most satisfying level. But you also know that it can come with great internal costs – vulnerability, occasional helplessness and that there will inevitably be a small number of failures, even if they are often out of your control.
So, if you are finding that your days are not as sparkly as they one were, that kittens don’t make you smile quite as often or that a senior dog still vigorously wagging their tail doesn’t make you feel as warm inside as it once used to, you may well have Compassion Fatigue, the emotional and physical exhaustion that often leads to a diminished sense of satisfaction in both work and life generally.
Exploring these suggestions may help you return to being vigorously passionate about your profession…
Listen hear and talk
To be a Veterinary Professional you have to be pretty smart as well as medically aware so it’s likely that you are already recognising some hints that Compassion Fatigue is wearing you down, possibly that is what made you start reading this post. But just like a plumber’s tap is always dripping, so it is that medical professionals including Vets, Nurses and Technicians ignore the obvious, and in the extreme until it’s too late. Don’t do that. Self-check.
An easy way to self-check is to set up a simple calendar appointment for the first Wednesday of every month at 10.00am and call it “How am I doing?” and take some time at that moment to self-assess. And if things just don’t feel right, talk to your partner or Mum or Dad or your best friend and quietly ask them the same question “How am I doing?”. And then listen, genuinely hear what they are saying and talk things through.
And if they start sharing things that you may not like, but probably recognise, understand that they care for you deeply. And because they care, they are prepared to take the risk of telling you things that you may not like to hear. So, be prepared to act, implementing some of the suggestions they may make plus some of what is included here. Act means change, and that is usually a good step towards overcoming Compassion Fatigue.
And if you start to see that one of your team mates is starting to show signs of not being themselves, they are withdrawn, unusually assertive or just going through the motions instead of being their active, enthusiastic self, reach out. Ask them “Are you OK?” and don’t accept a one or two-word response, explore a little further – “I’m fine.” as we all know often means the opposite. Sensitively asking the question may well help them to take their own first few steps back towards their veterinary happy place. And if not, talk to someone else who may be in a better position.
Monitor sleep patterns
Sleep is there for a reason. It is recovery mode for all of us and especially so for those with lives that can be particularly intense such as Veterinary Professionals. There is a cause and effect debate going around that lack of sleep leads to increased stress which leads to lack of sleep and so on. Let the researchers and scholars debate that. You know you need more sleep. Particularly if your work revolves around extended shifts or emergency work.
There are plenty of Apps that will help you monitor your sleep hygiene such as Sleep Cycle or SleepScore which is a good place to start and will help you establish a base line upon which you can then improve. And for how to improve your sleep cycle, check out the next few suggestions.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present in the moment and can have numerous benefits, everything from decreasing stress and sadness to increased levels of focus and happiness, according to general mindfulness research.
Meditation can be a map that helps guide us towards mindfulness and helps train our minds in the tactics that will help you move towards mindfulness.
Again there are Apps available that will help you to explore these principles and you can choose how light or deep you wish to engage at Calm or Headspace. Mindfulness & Meditation may not be for everyone, but it is well worth exploring for those experiencing Compassion Fatigue.
Hitting the gym works for some. For others it’s dusting off the bike and discovering all the new bike lanes that are around now. Even a brisk walk three times a week with a friend, or while listening to a Continuing Education podcast, makes a difference. It’s not the exercise per se, but the jolt to your system, and your timetable, that will help nudge you back on the happy path. It’s time to walk the walk, ride the ride or crunch the crunches.
Yeah right. Who has time for that? You do. And nowadays, it’s so much easier. And no, it’s not about Uber Eats, but one proven way to eat better is to have healthy meals home delivered. Blue Apron or Mindful Chef or Hello Fresh all have healthy meal solutions that can be subscribed to. And you will be surprised how economical they can be when you take into consideration that their portions result in no wastage. Plus the process of actually cooking is also highly cathartic.
Reducing stressful workloads
This is one of the harder things to manage because often this is out of your direct control. We all have to work, and even practice owners have to be fully engaged in their business. And you like your job, and your work mates, and changing jobs often means more stress.
What you can do is learn to say no.
And it’s really hard for Veterinary Professionals who by your very nature, always want to help and never like to disappoint. Regrettably, that also puts you in a position that others take advantage of or exposes you to Compassion Fatigue and over-work. Don’t take on last minute shifts, learn to leave work on time and say no to skipping breaks. That doesn’t mean that you have to say no always – but start with once a week and work up to a level you are happy with. No?
Taking regular vacations
There is a growing trend towards either not taking vacations at all, or choosing 3 or 4 day micro-vacations. The first is simply dumb while the second is a bit like a sugary drink, lots of fizz initially but no real long term satisfaction (sorry Coca Cola, not really).
Believe it or not, you are not irreplaceable and your hospital will survive without your being there for two or three weeks a year, but it will have less chance of surviving if you end up leaving through exhaustion, stress or Compassion Fatigue…we’ve all heard the statistics.
Choose a location you have always dreamed about and find a friend or life partner to travel with, book it and prepay it 100% with no cancellation policy so that you just have to go. By taking a travel buddy and parting with your money in advance it will make it really, really hard to cancel.
If you have implemented some, or all, of these options without discernible improvement, it may well be time to reach out for some more formal professional help. At the lighter end of the scale are some online discussion groups and forums where experiences are shared and talked about openly and helpfully such as Not One More Vet or Vet Positivity. Another avenue is to search for Continuing Education workshops or webinars on dealing with Compassion Fatigue – several of the major Veterinary Conferences now have sessions on this very subject.
Today there are also psychology and psychiatry practices that specialise in helping to resolve the challenges that professional care givers experience such as Positive Psych Solutions lead by Dr Nadine Hamilton, a leading worldwide authority on veterinary wellbeing. You can also consult resources like the Psychologist Locator on the American Psychological Association website, or just ask your GP. Importantly, understand that external impartial therapy is a strategy for navigating back to your happy place and should be embraced accordingly rather than resisted.
Overcoming Compassion Fatigue, sometimes known as “the pain of caring,” starts with taking care of yourself. Developing a self-care plan is not as hard as it looks, yet it also is not as easy as it sounds. But like any journey, it always starts with just a few small steps like these to point you in the right direction, and very soon those steps become miles, and the miles become milestones and you will be well on your way to finding your way back to your veterinary happy place once more.
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