Veterinary Compassion Fatigue: How To Prevent It In Your Practice
It has been a tough week. You’re piled high with cases, everyone is exhausted and conflict seems to be arising all around you. Relationships are strained and staff turnover is high.
Just a bad week, or a sign of institutional compassion fatigue?
Compassion fatigue, also known as vicarious trauma, happens as a result of a veterinary caregiver’s unique relationship with their patient. Vets who have to manage the feelings of themselves and others can over time become emotionally exhausted, leading to depletion.
Veterinary professionals are particularly prone to compassion fatigue given their close proximity to death and illness. Vets have to be the bearers of bad news, constantly juggling the needs of their patients and the wants of their clients. Veterinarians also face a number of ethical dilemmas in their work-life, resulting in a high level of moral distress¹.
The problem is so severe that around 74% of veterinary professionals experience low or average symptoms of secondary traumatic stress, whereas 25.8% are at risk of it².
Given this, how can you prevent or minimize this from happening in your veterinary practice?
How To Spot The Signs Of Institutional Compassion Fatigue
Before examining how to prevent compassion fatigue in practice, we are going to outline some of the signs of an emotionally exhausted workplace.
High levels of staff turnover
Poor staff relationships
Aggression from staff members
Negativity towards management
Lack of organizational vision
The breaking/challenging of company rules
Strong reluctance to change
Changes in co-worker relationships
The signs of compassion fatigue can often be confused with depression and/or burnout. The difference is, however, that compassion fatigue has a much more rapid onset. It is also much easier to recover from than conditions such as burnout (that is if the level of burnout is severe)³.
For more on how to spot the signs of compassion fatigue, click here.
How To Prevent Compassion Fatigue In Your Practice
Touch Base With Your Team
You won’t know what your team needs until you talk to them.
There isn’t one simple way to prevent compassion fatigue at work, as the factors influencing its manifestation can be highly individualistic. Therefore, practice managers and/or owners need to touch base with their teams to get a feel for their needs.
A great time to do this is during your weekly one-on-one meetings with your team.
Ask your team why they joined this profession in the first place, and inquire about what brings them joy at work. You want to maximize this for all your team members to mitigate the effects of compassion fatigue.
If you don’t have one already, create a set of values for your practice with an overarching purpose to rally the team around. Remind everyone of how they contribute to the overarching purpose, and set goals so everyone feels like they are working towards something meaningful.
It is also important to schedule regular team meetings. Inevitably, feelings of emotional fatigue will reemerge, so being proactive before it escalates is imperative.
A good debrief can do wonders for everyone’s emotional health.
Effective debriefs allow veterinary workers to process their emotions healthily. They provide a safe space where everyone can express their feelings and share their experiences with others.
Veterinary leaders need to be conscious of the risks of poorly structured debriefs. Bad team debriefs can quickly become venting sessions, which inadvertently bog down the whole team -exacerbating, rather than lessening, feelings of veterinary compassion fatigue.
One way to avoid this is through low-impact debriefing. Low-impact debriefing is a technique caregivers can use to evaluate when and where to hold debriefs.
This reflective technique comprises four stages:
Self Awareness. Before sharing an experience with others, you should evaluate how offloading can impact those around you. How do you feel when a co-worker offloads to you? What do you get out of these conversations? Is there a right or wrong way to go about it?
Give a fair warning. before sharing, you should give the person you’re talking to a heads-up. You never know what headspace someone else is in, so it is always nice to do so.
Consent. Make sure the person you’re speaking to is emotionally/physically available to talk. Maybe they have a consultation soon and don’t really have time to listen. Or maybe they’ve had a bad day at work and emotionally cannot deal with any more negativity.
Limited disclosure. If the person you are speaking to is ready to listen, give yourself a time constraint and/or limit to what you disclose. Whilst venting is healthy, too much is detrimental to both you and your team’s well-being. Stick to facts as much as possible and be careful of any unhelpful stories you are creating around any situation.
Whilst you can debrief with whoever you like, having a causal agreement with a colleague or mentor can be mutually beneficial.
Teach Your Team How To Recognize Compassion Fatigue In Themselves
Although we have already discussed some of the institutional signs of compassion fatigue, teaching your team what individualized signs they may see in themselves is imperative.
This is because as a veterinary leader, the reality is most of the time you won’t be emotionally available for your team (after all, you are only human!). Not only will you have many other demands in practice, but you also have personal emotional needs that need tending.
Given this, it is imperative for your team members to be aware of the signs of compassion fatigue in themselves, so they can take action early.
Institute Systematic Strategies
To ensure the well-being of your team, there needs to be some sort of institutionalized plan in place. But what does an effective well-being plan look like in actuality?
Although interventions regarding stress management and self-care can be beneficial, there is little proof that they work for feelings of compassion fatigue⁴. However, there is evidence that programs which aim to develop ‘compassion-related skills’ could be useful.
Some of the most well-studied techniques for compassion fatigue can be found in meditation programs. Compassion training as it is known, helps participants continue to feel empathy for the suffering of others without taking the emotional toll.
Instead of draining caregivers, this training helps reframe empathy into a transaction whereby positive emotions can be gained rather than taken⁵. Compassion fatigue resiliency programs (such as this one) can also garner promising results for emotionally depleted professionals.
Consider putting on some non-work-related team-building events. Doing activities outside work (such as sports or other leisure activities) can help decompress the team and build relationships. It can also provide a lot for your colleagues to talk about besides work, giving some sense of escapism during emotionally taxing periods.
Creating a culture of compassion is imperative to preventing emotional exhaustion. As a team leader, you have a responsibility to care for your teammates - physically and emotionally. This is why having systematic strategies in place to mitigate the effects of common ailments (such as compassion fatigue), is so important.
If you’re a team leader trying to navigate the challenging world of veterinary medicine, you should check out our leadership webinar. This webinar will teach you the fundamentals of good leadership, signposting common pitfalls veterinary professionals make when directing a team:
1 - ‘Work and compassion fatigue | American Veterinary Medical ….’ https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/wellbeing/work-and-compassion-fatigue. Accessed 25 Jun. 2021.
2 - ‘An investigation of the prevalence of compassion fatigue ….’ 21 Jun. 2019, https://www.magonlinelibrary.com/doi/full/10.12968/vetn.2019.10.5.276. Accessed 25 Jun. 2021.
3 - ‘Compassion Fatigue – The American Institute of Stress.’ 4 Jan. 2017, https://www.stress.org/military/for-practitionersleaders/compassion-fatigue. Accessed 25 Jun. 2021.
4 - ‘Resident physician burnout: is there hope? – PubMed – NIH.’ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18830837/. Accessed 25 Jun. 2021.
5 - ‘Compassion does not fatigue! – NCBI – NIH.’ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6005077/. Accessed 25 Jun. 2021.