Compassion Fatigue – Secondary Trauma and Burnout in the Animal Care Profession
25th January 2017
I will never forget the first time a patient died at the clinic. His name was Tippy. He was a kind and grand old man – a 14-year-old terrier cross. The veterinarian gently lifted him from the observation cage and lovingly gave him a bath, talking to him as she washed his fur. This grand old man deserved a dignified death. After gently drying him off, she and I walked him to the room where his owners were waiting. This should have been a joyous reunion, but given the circumstances and the reason why we were in this room instead of at the front counter, the reunion was bittersweet and filled with tears. We gave the owners as much time as they needed and waited until they were ready. I held Tippy’s forearm and the veterinarian found the vein and inserted the needle while his owners kissed Tippy’s forehead and whispered their good-byes.
Although terribly sad, his death was a good one. Tippy was no longer in pain from the cancer which was slowly taking him. Despite this, his death stays with me. The compassion shown by this veterinarian was, to me as a newly appointed veterinary nurse, something that I would forever admire. She held steady, showed patience and kindness. She had been a veterinarian for many years and remained passionate and resilient despite being exposed to death, trauma and grief numerous times a day.
How had she maintained this stance? How does she maintain the passion for her work and how does she not falter when she is exposed to suffering, death and trauma as often as she is?
Compassion fatigue is a common condition affecting those who care for suffering animals and/or people. Charles Figley and Robert Roop call it a form of burnout and traumatic stress that affects caregivers.
Symptoms of compassion fatigue
Symptoms of compassion fatigue vary and include the following:
- Intrusive thoughts or images associated with a distressing event
- Avoiding reminders associated with the event
- Feeling on edge or irritable
- Emotional numbness
- Mental, physical and emotional exhaustion
- Feelings of anger or guilt
If you recognise symptoms of compassion fatigue in yourself, a friend or colleague, what can you do?
Management of compassion fatigue
Exposure to euthanasia is one of the risk factors for compassion fatigue. In addition to this, those who are highly empathic and compassionate – essential traits of a good animal care professional, are those who are most at risk. It does not mean, however, that you are destined to be consumed by compassion fatigue. There are many useful strategies available to help you overcome this chronic stress induced condition.
Awareness is the first step to successfully preventing and managing compassion fatigue. This includes becoming aware of your early warning signs of stress. What are the physical, emotional and behavioural signs associated with stress? Physical symptoms may include rapid heart rate, an upset stomach or feeling tired. Emotional symptoms may include feeling irritable or teary. Behaviourally, early warning signs of stress can include changes in sleeping habits, eating more or less, or withdrawing from friends and family. Understanding what your early warning signs are will enable you to take steps to address your stress, before it becomes a chronic condition.
In addition to awareness, balancing your work and home life is an important tool for both prevention and management of compassion fatigue. Many animal care professionals experiencing compassion fatigue can become over involved in their work – holidays, lunch and tea breaks are frequently not taken. It’s useful to take a step back and evaluate how much time you’re allocating to your work, friends, family, your companion animals and yourself. Ask yourself, are you satisfied with this amount of time? Could you make some changes?
It’s particularly important to spend time engaging in activities that relax and energise you. The saying “you can’t pour from an empty cup” is very true and it will serve you well to remember this quote whenever you start telling yourself “I don’t deserve to look after myself”, “I don’t have time” or “I’m too tired”. Self-care is an act of compassion towards yourself. It is a necessity.
A final strategy I’d like to share with you today, is about reconnecting with yourself. Remember the reason you entered the animal care profession in the first place. Celebrate the good news stories. Share the stories with your friends, family and your co-workers. Remember these stories. They will provide hope when things get tough. Someone I was speaking with recently said to me about their work “I know what I do is a drop in the ocean but it’s my drop!” The good stuff is called compassion satisfaction. It’s the feeling of knowing you have made a difference. It’s about finding meaning in your work – despite the trauma and the losses.
Figley, C. R. & Roop, R. G. (2006). Compassion fatigue in the animal-care community. Washington, DC: The Humane Society of the United States. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/2258999/Compassion_fatigue_in_the_animal-care_community