Exposing Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue is not a new topic in veterinary medicine; it has been talked about before. Yet how many of us today would admit that we suffer from compassion fatigue? Whether you are the family veterinarian who is now saying goodbye to puppies and kittens you first met ten or fifteen years earlier when you entered the profession, or you are the emergency clinic technician who must say goodbye to many patients all in one day after barely getting to know their families, or you are the front office team member at a specialty practice who faces the brunt of emotional eruptions from clients day in and day out, we are all susceptible.

Experts agree that the more you know about compassion fatigue, the better prepared you are to recognize it and cope with its effects. Compassion is defined as a deep awareness of the suffering of another, coupled with the wish to relieve it (Figley & Roop, 2006). Fatigue is defined as the mental weariness resulting from exertion that is associated with attending to the emotional and physical pain of others (Figley & Roop, 2006). Combined together, compassion fatigue has been called thehurt of the heart (Ogilvie, 2006), something all of us in the veterinary profession are susceptible to, and many of us today suffer from this condition.

So what is burnout, a term we hear more often from our team and possibly ourselves? Burnout is the general feeling of exhaustion that develops when a person simultaneously experiences too much pressure and has too few sources of satisfaction (Figley & Roop, 2006). Then there is also the day to day stress inherent in our jobs; how does that fit into this discussion?A good way to remember the difference between Stress and Burnout is that Stress is “too much” (pressure, work, expectations) and Burnout is “not enough” (depletion, emptiness, apathy). If Stress is drowning, Burnout is being dried up! (Smith, 2008)

Regardless of their meanings, however, it is apparent that we as a profession suffer from stress, burnout, and compassion fatigue. When we examine the symptoms produced by these conditions, it’s apparent that they affect our professional lives, and also our personal lives. Let’s look at symptoms of compassion fatigue in particular:

  •  Bottled-up emotions: when you lack the space, time, or inclination to release your emotions, you stuff them down until you are all filled up. Eventually you will burst, and this may be in your workplace or your home, making innocent bystanders the victims.
  • Impulse to rescue anyone (or anything) in need: those of us who have a house full of rescued pets can certainly relate to this impulse. It can happen in our personal lives as well, when we attract those who are needy and whom we feel we can help.
  • Isolation from others: you may feel yourself drawing back from people at work or at home, wanting to be alone in the midst of your negative swirl of emotions. This walls off those who want to help, even if they could.
  • Sadness and apathy: it may be easy for you to recognize when you feel sad, but less obvious and more dangerous can be apathy. This is particularly true in the professional setting, when you may no longer be able to deliver the empathetic client service and team support that is so necessary in our profession.
  • Needs to voice excessive complaints about management and co-workers: displaced emotions can result in anger or dissatisfaction that manifests itself through complaints about those around you. This can put your career or position at risk as well.
  • Lack of interest in self-care practices: you may know what you need to do to take care of yourself, but you lack the interest or motivation to really do those things. These are typically the things that could help us the most in fighting compassion fatigue!
  • Reoccurring nightmare and flashbacks: if you’re having bad dreams about work, or reliving particularly bad moments or events, this could be a sure sign that you are reaching your limit.
  • Persistent physical ailments: you may have nagging ailments that don’t ever seem to disappear. They may not be enough to keep you home from work, but they make it more difficult to get through the work day. Compassion fatigue can result in higher absenteeism as well, where you decide not to even try to face the daily struggle either for physical or emotional reasons.
  • Difficulty concentrating, mentally tired: carrying all of that emotional baggage can wear you out mentally, making it more difficult to stay on task or complete your tasks.
  • Prone to accidents: your diverted mental energy increases the risk of making mistakes, both medical and physical. Compassion fatigue can make an organization more prone to having an increase in workers’ comp claims.

When you clock out at the end of the day or shift, your compassion fatigue isn’t left behind in your locker. It follows you home, and affects your relationships with your spouse or partner, children, friends, and ultimately decreases your overall quality of life. These are just a few of the ways that compassion fatigue causes us to act at home:

  •  Withdrawn
  • Decreased interest in intimacy
  • Mistrust
  • Isolation from friends
  • Impact on parenting
  • Projection of anger or blame
  • Intolerance

We choose this career because we are compassionate, caring people. Unfortunately that also makes us more susceptible to compassion fatigue. If we had no compassion, we would not have to worry about the fatigue. The first step is to understand and accept the emotional strain that is part of our career. We must recognize the toll it takes on us daily, yet also recognize our great potential to overcome or minimize its effects.

We understand and accept that sadness and pain are a part of our job…We begin to understand that our feelings of anger, depression, and sadness are best dealt with if we recognize them and allow them to wash over and past us…We recognize our incredible potential to help animals. We ARE changing the world! Fakkema, 1991

So what can we do about compassion fatigue, aside from leaving the profession and giving up the careers we love? We have to fight back, on a personal level, and an organizational level. We can make a difference, in our lives as well as the lives of pets and families.

Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, PHR, began her career in veterinary medicine by becoming a registered veterinary technician in 1992. Her career includes technician positions within private practice and surgical training and research. She joined Gulf Coast Veterinary Internists and Critical Care (GCVI) in Houston, Texas, in 1996. During her 10 years at GCVI, she became the first full-time manager in the practice by accepting the position of Director of Client Services. In September 2006 she became a Certified Veterinary Practice Manager (CVPM) through the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association (VHMA). Driven by a growing desire to consult with managers in other emergency and specialty practices, she founded the Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Practice Association (VESPA at www.VESPAssociation.org) in June 2006. (Please read more about Katherine Dobbs below post.)

In January 2007, Katherine accepted a position with Horizon Veterinary Services, Inc., as interim hospital manager of their flagship hospital, FoxValleyAnimalReferralCenter in Appleton, Wisconsin. In 2008, she created InterFace Veterinary HR Systems, LLC.  Katherine focuses on providing human resource information and building customized tools for performance management within general and emergency/specialty practices. Katherine became a Professional in Human Resources (PHR) in June 2008, and a compassion fatigue specialist in 2009. Katherine has also been published in various industry journals including AAHA Trends, Firstline, Veterinary Economics, Veterinary Practice News, and the Veterinary Technician journal where she was a member of the editorial board and the featured author of the monthly Management Matters column. She has published two books with AAHA Press, and writes for several technician journals in Canada and a veterinary publication in the UK. She is an invited blogger for Veterinary Practice News and My Exceptional Veterinary Team. She has also self-published two books for pet owners on end-of-life and pet loss. Her public speaking experience includes various state, regional, and national conferences in the United States and Canada, for managers, veterinarians, and veterinary technicians. Katherine was voted the 82nd Annual Western Veterinary Conference Practice Management Continuing Educator of the Year in 2010. (updated 2/12)

You can contact Katherine at:

Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, PHR

interFace Veterinary HR Systems, LLC

3825 E. Calumet St., Ste. 400-187

Appleton, WI  54915



Cell: 920-450-1982