Compassion Fatigue

Let’s talk about something that no one likes to admit veterinarians, animal techs, and humane society workers may be experiencing — the dreaded burnout, or what academics refer to as “compassion fatigue.”

In a fast-moving world where machismo reins, and the mentality of “get the job done” comes first, there doesn’t seem to be much room for “feelings.”

Compassion Fatigue is a Big Deal

Let’s talk statistics, in particular, let’s crunch the numbers about working with animals and have to deal with compassion fatigue.

According to a 2015 study, 1 in 6 veterinarians has considered suicide. This study showed that they are more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders, depression, and suffer from suicidal thoughts compared to the rest of the US population.

  • 6.8 percent of males and 10.9 percent of females in the profession have severe psychological distress compared with 3.5 percent and 4.4 percent of U.S. male and female adults.
  • 24.5 percent of males and 36.7 percent of females in veterinary medicine have experienced depressive episodes since veterinary school, which is about 1 1/2 times the prevalence in U.S. adults overall throughout their lifetime.
  • 14.4 percent of males and 19.1 percent of females who are veterinarians have considered suicide since graduation. This is three times the U.S. national mean.
  • 1.1 percent of males and 1.4 percent of females in the veterinary profession have attempted suicide since veterinary school.

Regarding the last point, the suicide attempt rates for veterinarians are below the national mean—1.6 percent for men and 3.0 percent for women. One possibility suggested by the survey authors is that veterinarians’ ready access to drugs may more often result in lethal suicide attempts, leaving fewer survivors to respond to the survey. No information was given on suicide rates.

Alarming UK rates

U.K. veterinary profession has three to four times the rate of suicide that would be expected in the general population and around twice that reported for other health care professionals.

Compassion Fatigue in Animal Clinics

I grew up around a veterinary hospital and a farm, and often experienced a circle of life mentality — everything dies, it’s just the way it goes.

So then, why does it seem to weigh so heavily on us, and what can we do when we start feeling this way?

This feeling of burnout may come even though you may love your job — a familiar refrain among many folks in helping professions; especially true when working with the general public or dealing with sick or dying animals.

You may feel numb or drained by the end of the workday, and as time progresses, not finding enjoyment in your work.

Aka compassion fatigue.

Compassion Fatigue Symptoms

The American Veterinary Medical Association lists a variety of symptoms for compassion fatigue, including

  • sadness/apathy
  • isolation
  • difficulty concentrating
  • chronic physical pains
  • lack of self-care

So, what does this mean? What can we do?

Compassion Fatigue Treatment

For one, we can talk about it! Open up a dialogue with your co-workers, tear down the walls, get rid of the stigma!

It’s okay to feel this way, your work is essential, and chances are, someone you know has felt similarly.

If you feel uncomfortable disclosing your feelings to a co-worker, locate a licensed mental health professional. They can help you through this!

Just find some support!

Compassion Fatigue Self Care

One last thought regarding self-care.

Self-care is what you would think it would be: taking care of yourself, but, in a purposeful way. You cannot take care of clients and animals if you are not taking care of yourself.

In other words, you cannot pour into another’s cup if yours is empty.

Take time for yourself on your days off and do what you love to do!