Exploring Compassion Fatigue in Veterinary Professionals and Animal Welfare

Charles Figley, a renowned professor who studies trauma, describes compassion fatigue as a “natural consequence of caring.” Compassion fatigue can also be thought of as a response to trauma exposure and is comprised of secondary traumatic stress and burnout. People who are compassionate and/or who care for others may experience compassion stress when they are unable to alleviate another’s suffering. Workplace stress, such as long hours, limited resources, workplace conflict, low pay, etc., on the other hand, can contribute to burnout. Compassion fatigue can affect our work and lead to a cycle that affects not only our professional lives, but our entire lives including our physical and mental health. At an organizational level, this can result in low morale, gossiping, high employee turnover and absenteeism, consumer complaints or litigation, inability to meet financial goals, and more. When we hear of compassion fatigue, many of us may think of healthcare, community, and emergency service professionals. Animal care providers also experience compassion fatigue, as they too are exposed to the daily trauma of suffering, neglect, and death in animals. This includes those who work in animal health, animal welfare, and biomedical research. Those who choose to work with animals do so because they feel it is their calling. Their work can be very satisfying and give a sense of meaning and purpose, but it does not come without emotional pain and feelings of despair. For example, approximately 670,000 dogs and 860,000 cats are euthanized by shelters in the United States each year. This is a paradox considering those who work at shelters are doing so because they are compassionate people who feel a strong sense of responsibility for caring for animals. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increase in pet ownership, and with veterinary healthcare team shortages, there has been an increase in burnout, affecting those in a field that already has high rates of burnout, compassion fatigue, and suicide. Signs you or someone you know may be experiencing compassion fatigue or trauma exposure responses:
  • Feeling helpless and hopeless
  • Inability to empathize, or feeling numb
  • Chronic exhaustion or pain
  • Headaches
  • Health problems
  • Dissociation
  • Anger
  • Cynicism
  • Fear
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Guilt
  • Hypervigilence
  • Addiction
  • Absenteeism and/or tardiness
  • Decline in work performance and motivation
At an organizational level, creating a culture that promotes employee well-being can help individuals to focus on their own self-care. An organization can also help improve the workplace by providing crisis debriefing, encouraging employees to participate in peer support groups, and reducing workplace stress factors such as scheduling, adjusting workflows, smaller workloads, improving training and supervision, and addressing bullying. Other ways an organization can promote employee well-being are through benefits, like vacation time and employee assistance programs. Additionally, promoting compassion fatigue and burnout awareness and developing an initiative to educate employees in recognizing symptoms in themselves and others, and how to increase self-care strategies are other ways for an organization to provide support in the workplace. Individually, engaging in self-care can help to reduce the effects of compassion fatigue and transform compassion fatigue into resilience. Think of the flight attendant instructing you to place your oxygen mask on yourself first before you help others. If we are not taking care of ourselves, those we care for can’t depend on us. Self-care can help us maintain resilience in times of adversity. Practicing self-compassion has been shown to reduce the effects of burnout and compassion fatigue. For example, being kind to oneself and giving yourself grace when you make mistakes, instead of being self-critical. This includes the mindful practice of centering oneself on the present moment and without any judgement. Healthy boundary-setting for a work-life balance can go a long way in caring for ourselves, such as not picking up an extra shift or answering calls on your day off. Engage in life outside of work and spend time with friends or family; social support is helpful in mitigating the effects of burnout and compassion fatigue. Engaging in life outside of work also includes taking time for other hobbies we enjoy. Practicing gratitude daily, like reminding yourself of something good that happened at the end of the day, can help move our focus from the negative to the positive. Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, founder and director of The Trauma Stewardship Institute, recommends asking yourself before you begin your workday, “why am I doing this work?” Taking the time to reflect and remind ourselves of our intentions and motivations for why we started this work – our love for animals and caring for them – is a way to renew hopefulness and compassion satisfaction. Interested in learning more? Join us for a free compassion fatigue workshop! Hosted by counseling intern Casey Vaughn and featuring a book signing from Jen Blough, author of To Save a Starfish: A Compassion Fatigue Workbook for the Animal Welfare Warrior. The workshop will be held at the main office of Deepwater Counseling. Choose from Saturday, July 15 from 9 am-12 pm or 1-4 pm, or Sunday, July 16 from 2-5 pm. Space is limited. Register at info@deepwatermichigan.com or 734-203-0183 ext. 700. - By Casey Vaughn, Counseling Intern