Finding Hope with Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue or secondary traumatic stress disorder has been a hot topic of discussion for many years and continues to be a very real problem in the veterinary profession. Most people associate compassion fatigue with continued exposure to traumatic events. When you have the calling to work in a veterinary setting, the words burnout and compassion fatigue generally do not enter into the equation. It is not until you have a blow up with a coworker or find yourself tearful after delivering bad news to a client that you begin to acknowledge you are struggling.

Know the Warning Signs
In the beginning stages of compassion fatigue, symptoms may include chronic headaches, exhaustion, insomnia, and a weakened immune system. If not addressed, compassion fatigue takes on the physical symptoms of emotional stress, such as tension headaches, migraines, muscle aches, back pain and gastrointestinal issues. In turn, you tend to withdraw socially from others, embrace a cynical outlook, have low energy, lose or gain weight, and feel overworked and undervalued. Over time, you become emotionless, depressed, hardened, and overwhelmed. Sometimes, you do not realize the harmful repercussions until you experience a health crisis or other significant trauma.

Improve Self-Awareness
Effectively acknowledging the impact of secondary trauma requires you to concentrate on your own experience and be fully self-aware. Aspects of the job may frustrate you at times because you feel powerless over circumstances beyond your control. As burnout and compassion fatigue escalates, your emotions may get the better of you and cause you to feel angry, defeated, discouraged, irritable, exhausted and hopeless. Early detection is critical to finding resiliency with compassion fatigue. Learning to identify your own symptoms is half the battle when determining a solution that works best for you. Coming to a point where you can take back control of your life will take hard work and dedication.

Create a Supportive Work Environment
Since compassion fatigue is regarded as an occupational stress, it is an organization’s responsibility to care for the staff by encouraging open discussions, breaks during the shift, taking personal days and vacations, and coming together as a team to find solutions. When you are deeply impacted by a challenging case with an emotionally charged client, it is helpful to communicate with peers who understand the pressures of the job. Colleagues who have developed strong listening skills can provide thoughtful and creative options based on their own experiences. Employees should have resources made available to them and be able to attend a compassion fatigue workshop.

Establish a Support Network
A strong social support network can be critical in helping you through the stress of challenging circumstances, whether you had a terrible day at work or suffered a personal crisis.  Since supportive family, friends, and co-workers play a pivotal role in your life, it is never too late to cultivate these vital relationships. The objective is to have more support than you think is necessary.  Focus on individuals you can count on and trust and avoid negative interactions that will only make you feel worse. Connecting with reliable friends and family members can improve your ability to manage stress. Consider joining an online support group to assist with feeling less isolated and learning positive coping strategies.

When to Seek Help
When your support network is not enough, it might be time to reach out to a counselor or social worker. A trained professional can assist you with outlining goals and devising a plan to create and maintain a positive change. If you are feeling alone and hopeless, there is a 24-hour crisis hotline available to you at 1-800-273-8255.

Concentrate on Compassion Satisfaction
One of the ways to combat compassion fatigue is to fully appreciate the positive aspects of the job. Consider what originally motivated you to want to work in veterinary medicine in the first place. Take an inventory of what brings you joy with the job on a day to day basis. Developing a positive attitude and implementing gratitude has proven to be helpful when working in a caregiving environment.

Formulating a Self-Care Plan
Perform a daily ritual that signifies the transition from work life to home life.  It could be as simple as taking off your name badge, changing out of your uniform before you leave work, or listening to music in the car on the way home. Fostering a commitment to self-care focusing on nutrition, hydration, rest, exercise, and relaxation can aid in protecting yourself against compassion fatigue. To create a self-care plan, it is necessary to recognize what brings contentment to your life and clearly defining your priorities outside of work. Strive to have a work-life balance finding a hobby that raises your spirits, and taking scheduled vacations and spending time socializing with family and friends. Mindfulness can help with diminishing stress and be enhancing to your overall well-being. Through self-reflection and mindfulness, you can examine events and triggers, learn from them, and move in a forward direction.

Submitted by Jennifer Durn, MSW LSW

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