Compassion Fatigue’s Unspoken Side Effect: Emotional Decision-Making
As a veterinary professional during the COVID-19 pandemic era, you no doubt are hearing about compassion fatigue on all sides. In fact, your hospital likely has one, if not more, team members suffering from this serious condition. Times are more difficult than ever for veterinary professionals. And, while compassion fatigue may sound like a health issue that requires only a short break or simply a Snickers bar, this mental condition is much more serious, and needs to be remedied before patient and client care, interactions between colleagues, and the team member’s personal life are affected.
What’s the difference between compassion fatigue and burnout?
Compassion stress, compassion fatigue, and burnout are common terms used frequently in high-stress professions, but the definitions are often used interchangeably. Let’s clearly define each term:
- Compassion stress — Compassion stress is the unavoidable stress experienced when helping people or pets in distress. This stress derives from a sense of responsibility and a desire to alleviate suffering, and is expected and unavoidable in the veterinary field.
- Compassion fatigue — Compassion fatigue is characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion that leads to an inability to empathize or feel compassion for others. Compassion fatigue often develops after constant exposure to compassion stress.
- Burnout — Burnout also results from workplace stressors, and begins with feeling emotionally and physically exhausted, and that your job is increasingly negative and frustrating, and can lead to reduced job performance.
Compassion fatigue and burnout have one key difference—compassion fatigue comes from the work you do, while burnout springs from where you work. Compassion fatigue will follow wherever you go, but burnout can often be alleviated by finding a different job or position in your chosen career field.
What are the common signs of compassion fatigue?
While specific experiences will vary, common compassion fatigue signs include:
- Chronic physical and emotional exhaustion
- Reduced ability to empathize
- Anger and irritability
- Diminished sense of joy or fulfillment in career
- Difficulty making decisions
- Memory loss
- Increasing isolation
- Skepticism, cynicism, and resentfulness
- Mood swings
- Inappropriate clinical judgement
- Compromised patient and client care
- Avoidance of certain patients, clients, or euthanasia
- Unpredictable work habits
If you notice these signs in yourself or a colleague, seek immediate help.
Examples of compassion fatigue and emotional decision-making in veterinary medicine
During these stressful times, tensions are running high in veterinary practices around the country. With too-few support staff assisting too-few veterinarians, demanding clients, lack of funds, the inability to keep critical inventory in stock, and the added stress of sick loved ones, it’s no wonder tempers are hot and coworkers are snapping. We do not always do a good job of identifying compassion fatigue in ourselves, but usually we recognize the problem in others. You may have noticed the following situations that compassion fatigue causes in your hospital:
- A 10-year veteran RVT loses their mind over running out of four-inch vetwrap, although plenty of two-inch is available
- The front desk manager screams about their pen running out of ink, despite the mug full of pens in arm’s reach
- A kennel attendant snaps at a barking dog to be quiet
Veterinary practice managers show their compassion fatigue a little differently. After all, as captains of the ship, they can’t lose their cool. If you are a manager and find yourself in the following situations, you are likely suffering from compassion fatigue:
- You suddenly hesitate to evaluate or try new things.
- You decide that bringing in a relief veterinarian will cause you more stress than hiring a new one.
- You decide that having a trained veterinary professional clean bathrooms would be more cost effective—in this case, you are not only suffering from compassion fatigue, but also wrong.
- The thought of someone else cleaning your laundry is causing you stress.
By managing your compassion fatigue, you can put your overwhelming emotions aside and make rational business decisions that will increase revenue, efficiency, and patient care.
How to get help for compassion fatigue
Compassion fatigue likely won’t disappear on its own, unless you completely switch careers. To rediscover your happiness and joy in veterinary medicine, try the following tactics:
- Prioritize sleep and self care — If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take proper care of your patients and clients. Quality sleep, a nutritious diet, and daily physical activity can significantly impact your well-being. Avoid putting your own needs on the backburner and ensure you carve out time for yourself.
- Identify a daily practice for recharging — Create time and space for quiet, rest, rejuvenation, and mindfulness each day. A few minutes of morning breathing meditation exercises, a midday yoga break, or an afternoon walk while listening to music are simple daily rejuvenation practices. Mindfulness, meditation, yoga, spending time with loved ones, exploring nature, and devoting time to hobbies or interests outside work have also been found to reduce compassion fatigue.
- Talk to a professional — A licensed mental health professional can help provide clarity and some tools to address and manage compassion fatigue.
Here at Veterinary System Services, our entire purpose is to make your life easier. We help your practice run more smoothly through off-loaded medical-grade laundry services, book-keeping, and relief staffing—whatever you need, our team is here for you. Call us to discuss how we can help.
Brad’s love for animals and exposure to working with them has come in many forms, and spanned decades. From volunteer work, that includes 5 years with the Denver Dumb Friends League, to countless hours being a victim for Search and Rescue dogs, or a chew toy for police dogs, he has a passion for working with animals. In college, Brad worked for a small, three-doctor practice cleaning kennels. Before starting VSS, he spent almost 10 years as an inventory manager for one of the state’s largest animal hospitals. He has seen this industry from many angles.