Compassion fatigue

Veterinary professionals are required to open their hearts and minds to animals and their owners, but this process of empathy makes them vulnerable to being profoundly affected and even possibly damaged by their work.

Compassion Fatigue is 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.

Dr. Charles Figley

 

Over time, your ability to feel and care for others becomes eroded through overuse of your skills of compassion.

Dr. Frank M. Ochberg – psychiatrist and pioneer in trauma science

Although research has shown that veterinary professionals have a high level of risk of compassion fatigue (Roop and Figley, 2006), it is possible to prevent compassion fatigue and to recover from it.

 Why are veterinary professionals at risk?

  • Direct exposure to trauma every day – death, animal cruelty and pet owners in mourning or financial difficulty
  • Frequently have to deal with ethical dilemmas – moral stress is a primary contributor to compassion fatigue
  • Some people are attracted to the caring professions because they identify very strongly with the helpless as a result of being taught at an early age to put caring for the needs of others before their own.  As a consequence, they may not have developed authentic self- care practices
  • One of the archetypes Carl Jung identified was the caregiver – the caregiver’s greatest fear is selfishness and his greatest weakness is to allow himself to be martyred and exploited
  • The heavy schedule at vet school and the long working hours in practice may give the message that personal needs are irrelevant and not having time to yourself to recuperate from work is part of the job, as is putting the needs of animals before your own, even if you are exhausted
  • A veterinary career tends to be about individual talent and responsibility but sharing difficult experiences is vital for self care
  • Working parents have to care for animals at work and then go home with enough empathy in their tank to fulfil their childrens’ and partner’s needs
  • It can be difficult to schedule good self-care practices (like a yoga class) into your life if your working hours are often extended