Compassion Fatigue: Then and Now

By Katherine Dobbs

Can you remember back to when you first decided to enter veterinary medicine? For many of us, this profession is a “calling” that began whispering our name way back in our youth. Perhaps you were the type of child who found all the strays in the neighborhood and helped injured wildlife in your back yard. Whenever it began, at some point you made a commitment to be a caregiver to animals. In the boo kCompassion Fatigue in the Animal-Care Community, authors Figley and Roop describe five phases of the new helper—that was us back in the beginning, and may even be some of you now. See if you can recall these phases, or identify if you are currently in any of these phases:

Phase One: The Dream

  1. Our dream of helping animals emerges early, perhaps in childhood
  2. We imagine the good work we will do
  3. This dream sustains us through our education
  4. However, eventually we must “wake up”…
  5. Eventually…we enter Reality

Phase Two: The Start

  1. We start our careers!
  2. We are ready to make the world a better place!
  3. We KNOW we can make a difference!
  4. We realize that our efforts will ease the plight of animals
  5. Our enthusiasm overflows; we live the cause!

Phase Three: Losing Our Breath

  1. Then it sinks in that the journey is long
  2. …and our enthusiasm dampens
  3. Our resolve begins to diminish
  4. We discover the many difficulties of the job
  5. Often we begin to feel mad, angry, perhaps hopeless

Phase Four: Desperately Seeking Rhythm

  1. We begin to recognize the need to pace ourselves
  2. We need to sustain our sanity, health, and energy level
  3. So we slow down, look around, and hopefully devise a plan
  4. We will either take steps to move forward…
  5. …Or, we will check out and leave the profession

Phase Five: Finding Our Rhythm

  1. We successfully find our pace, our niche, our way
  2. This discovery is thrilling and provides a sense of relief
  3. We begin to hit a stride that carries us through
  4. We know better what to expect of our career…
  5. …and we have previous successes to draw from!

Do any of these phases sound familiar? Did you pass through some of them, and where are you now? Some of us find our rhythm sooner than others, but it’s imperative that we find it at some point. First we must take personal responsibility for making a change. Here are a few suggestions to cope with burnout and stress:

  •  Accept that the situation itself is stressful: realize that it is not us, and it is not “them”; instead it is the situation that we are forced to cope with that is stressful. Then choose how you will react to the situation.
  • Share your feelings with a trusted person: it is very important to be able to debrief or “vent” to another person who can understand your feelings. However, it is also important to realize that you can unload both the description of the event AND the associated negative feelings on to that other person, causing them to now bear your burden of compassion fatigue. There is a technique called Low Impact Debriefing that can help protect everyone involved. In this type of debriefing, you ask your co-worker, spouse, or friend if they can handle listening to you debrief; maybe they are having a bad day, and it wouldn’t be a good time for them to bear your burden. Then you allow them to control how much you dump on them, and what type of material they can handle at that time. For example, look at this conversation below:

“We had a really tough case today, can I debrief with you?”

“Well, my older dog is having some health issues, so as long as it is not about a dog patient of yours, then I’m fine.”

“Okay, it was actually a cat, and it was hit by a car.”

“Gee, don’t tell me the gory details, though, just tell me the basics and then, how it made you feel.”

“Right, well it ended up dying, and it was just so hard on everyone. It was a young cat, and if the owners could have afforded surgery, we might have been able to save him. I just felt, well, helpless. I have all these great skills, but I couldn’t use them to help this sweet cat.”

As you can tell, the “faucet” or flow of information was controlled by the person receiving the debriefing; they were able to set up some limits so the negative story didn’t cause them to grieve as well. The technician involved in the case was able to talk about how it made them feel, which is really what they needed most. So this was a “safe” way to debrief with someone who was supportive.

  • Enhance your communication skills to be heard: if you are suffering from burnout or stress and you suspect some of your heavy workload or the ineffective management of the practice may be partially to blame, this is when good communication skills can be invaluable. You need to be able to express how you’re feeling. Simply complaining will not create the change you need.
  • Initiate positive action to change your environment: regardless of your position in the practice, positive action can alter your working environment and create a less toxic atmosphere for everyone. Too often we wade in a swamp of negative emotions and reactions, and forget to make the changes that can help us survive the tough aspects of the job.
  • Suggest solutions to proper management: when you take a problem to management, bring a solution as well. Not only will this help you be heard, but it may help the practice to implement changes that will reduce the stress for everyone on the team. Be sure you take these solutions to the right person in management, meaning up the proper chain of command in your facility.
  • Care for your personal needs: this cannot be stressed enough, you simply MUST learn to take care of your physical and emotional needs. This includes taking breaks, giving yourself a true change of scenery during lunch, and most importantly taking care of yourself outside of work hours. Establish a routine of relaxation and exercise, and indulge in hobbies that take you away from veterinary medicine. We are helpers, and we often forget to help ourselves…yet if we do not, then we will lack the resources to take care of those who need us.
  • Take time away from your stressful situation: when you have vacation provided, be sure to take it, and use it well. Instead of setting aside a week to move or remodel your house, plan some real relaxation time. In other words, make sure your “vacation” is not just more planned stress! On your days off, carve out some time for yourself, rather than filling the time with chores and errands. We know you’re likely the caretaker for the entire family, but again, you must take care of yourself first!
  • Allow others to help: yes, that’s right, you need help sometimes too. This is true while you’re working, by being able to ask for help when needed from your teammates or management and learning to delegate tasks that are appropriate. Outside of work, you should also let others help…with the house, the family, the kids, etc. You deserve some time off and some support!

Using some of these tools will help you find that rhythm we discussed earlier. It’s okay to move to the beat of a different drummer, just make sure there’s rhythm in the beat…or else it’s all just noise!


Read: Exposing Compassion Fatigue: