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Occupational burnout, moral distress, and compassion fatigue are a trio of growing problems within the veterinary industry. They’re affecting everyone right now…it’s almost impossible not to be experiencing at least one of these given the current state of the world!

The bad news is that these three incredibly damaging stressors are teaming up to wreak havoc – and not just on our work and relationships. Stress and compassion fatigue in particular are incredibly bad for our health and can lead to very serious problems. The connection between stress and compassion fatigue and low resiliency is well recognized, as is its history with occupational burnout and moral distress.

Occupational burnout is more of an organizational issue, whereas moral distress and compassion fatigue are rooted more in individual effects and circumstances – luckily, whichever you’re impacted by, there are ways to cope. In this post, we’ll examine the causes, symptoms, and potential consequences of stress and compassion fatigue, and explore what veterinary staff can do to combat it.

What Causes Stress and Compassion Fatigue? 

So, where exactly does stress and compassion fatigue come from? Stress and compassion fatigue develops when someone is exposed to traumatic or distressing events.

Over time, the cumulative effects of this repeated exposure to tense, anxiety-inducing environments can take a toll on the mind and body. And this can result in decreased mental resilience and negative physical effects.

In the veterinary profession, many otherwise dedicated and brilliant vets have internalized the belief that exhaustion equals commitment and passion, and that working yourself to the bone for clients and patients is akin to a badge of honor.

In reality, this isn’t the case at all. And operating under this misguided assumption does more harm than good – for yourself, clients, and fellow veterinary team members.

This way of thinking, combined with the typical personality traits of a veterinary professional – high levels of empathy and a tendency to put the needs of other people before their own – has created a perfect storm of stress and compassion fatigue among vet staff in recent years.

Signs and Symptoms of Stress and Compassion Fatigue

If you’re in the veterinary industry, you or someone you know will undoubtedly be affected by stress and compassion fatigue at some point during their career. But what exactly should you look for? If you suspect stress and compassion fatigue might be creeping on you or your clinic, watch closely for the following signs:

  • Withdrawal from activities at work or at home. This may include failing to attend staff meetings and outings or losing interest in recreational activities.
  • Sudden or unexplained anxiety. This could manifest as constant worry, feeling overwhelmed or out of control, or a racing mind.
  • Lack of self-confidence. You may feel like you’re not good at your job or that you’re constantly making mistakes.
  • Decreased morale. You may feel cynical or negative about your work, clients, or the profession as a whole.
  • Numbness and a tendency to disassociate. This can often be accompanied by a feeling that you’re just going through the motions at work.
  • Behavioral changes such as addiction. This could manifest as substance abuse, gambling, eating disorders, or excessively risky behavior.
  • Decreased client and patient interaction. You may feel that you’re unable to connect with clients or patients in the same way as before.
  • Lack of attention to detail. This may include making careless mistakes or overlooking small tasks.
  • Lack of a genuine caretaker mentality. You may feel like you’re no longer emotionally attached to patients or clients.
  • Not showing up for work, being late, or quitting. This is an obvious sign that you’re struggling and need help.
  • Destructive actions. Expressing a negative attitude or a short fuse are examples of destructive actions.
  • Feeling discouraged to succeed or advance your career. You may lose interest in learning new things or taking on new challenges.

If any of these things sound familiar, it’s important to pause and take stock. Burnout from stress and compassion fatigue could be right around the corner.

12 Tips for Beating Stress and Compassion Fatigue

Now we know what stress and compassion fatigue looks like, it’s time to get down to the business of how exactly you can beat it as a veterinary professional. Here are 10 tips to help get you started:

  1. Learn to let go. One of the primary ways of tackling stress and compassion fatigue is to simply learn to let go. This means recognizing that you can’t be in control of every patient outcome or client interaction regardless of how much you’d love each one to be perfect.
  2. Focus on your response to situations. Instead of obsessing over the outcome, focus instead on your response to any given situation – because that’s the one thing you’re truly in control of.
  3. Practice mindfulness and meditation. Meditation is a great way to get back in touch with your body and spirit by unblocking and releasing trapped energies like tension and anxiety. Similarly, use mindfulness to shift your perspective.
  4. Recognize that you’ve done your best. While it can be incredibly difficult to disconnect yourself emotionally from pet patient outcomes and highly charged client-facing interactions, recognize that with any given task, you’ve done your best and can ask no more of yourself than that.
  5. Remember why you chose veterinary medicine. When things get tough, it can be helpful to remember why you chose veterinary medicine in the first place, and align your desires with your daily workflow.
  6. Share your knowledge and experience. If you can, share the experience and knowledge you’ve gained in the veterinary profession with others – passing on your knowledge and wisdom will help you understand just how far you’ve come.
  7. Find tasks you enjoy. Look for one or two tasks that you enjoy each day, and appreciate the sheer number of clients, and animals, your practice gets to positively impact.
  8. Take your vacation days (and lunch breaks)! Don’t feel guilty for taking your vacation days, and use them to truly unplug from work. It’s also vital to take your lunch breaks and use them to eat, relax, and recharge.
  9. Talk to vendor representatives about staff lunches and perks. These small things can brighten everyone’s day and help raise morale in the workplace.
  10. Take a moment to step outside for fresh air. This is especially helpful if you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed. Fresh air can help clear your head and give you a new perspective.
  11. Help plan staff outings and attend them. Staff outings are a great way to have fun and blow off some steam together, outside of the clinic setting.
  12. Start an exercise program and set attainable goals for yourself. Exercise releases endorphins, which have been shown to improve mood and energy levels. Start small and set attainable goals for yourself to solidify a healthy routine.

Final Words

Throughout this post, we’ve examined the impact of stress and compassion fatigue among veterinary staff today. The job requires highly empathetic and caring people to give of themselves constantly, often while putting their own needs aside or even ignoring them altogether. And unfortunately, these are the perfect conditions in which stress and compassion fatigue can thrive.

But it’s not all bad news. By following the advice set out here, you can take steps to quickly and effectively regain emotional control, mental clarity, and a peaceful, healthier outlook.

By adhering to these simple techniques you’ll realign with your purpose and remember why you chose to join the veterinary profession. You’ll also give yourself the chance to fall back in love with serving clients and treating pet patients – and learn how to give stress and compassion fatigue the boot!

To learn more about the topics discussed here, download our ebook, Stress Management For Veterinary Professionals.