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Compassion Fatigue: What's the Impact on Your Team?

Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, PHR


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Compassion fatigue is not a new topic in veterinary medicine; it has been talked about before. Yet how many of us today would admit that we suffer from compassion fatigue, and/or that we see the effects on our team?

First, we must understand what it is.

It is likely that we are all familiar with the term “burnout”. It is important to determine whether you are looking at compassion fatigue or burnout in order to apply the correct treatment. When these two terms are compared in human medicine, we find that burnout results from the stresses that come from the work environment, whereas compassion fatigue evolves from the relationship between the health professional and the patient, and client, in our case.

Expanding that comparison, you could also deduce that burnout is more associated with WHERE you work; if you leave the job, you leave behind the work environment and the burnout (or at least part of it). BUT, compassion fatigue is more associated with the work you DO, and it follows you wherever you go, as long as you are a caregiver.

How much stress do you have in your life? Download the Life Stress Test to find out whether you're at risk for anxiety-related illnesses.

Experts agree that the more you know about compassion fatigue, the better prepared you are to recognize it and cope with its effects. Compassion is defined as a deep awareness of the suffering of another, coupled with the wish to relieve it (Figley & Roop, 2006. Fatigue is defined as the mental weariness resulting from exertion that is associated with attending to the emotional and physical pain of others (Figley & Roop, 2006). Combined together, compassion fatigue has been called the “hurt of the heart” (Ogilvie 2006), something all of us in the veterinary profession are susceptible to. Many of us today suffer from this condition.

Let’s look at symptoms of compassion fatigue in particular:

  • Bottled-up emotions: when you lack the space, time, or inclination to release your emotions, you stuff them down until you are all filled up. Eventually you will explode, and this may be in your workplace or your home, taking it out on innocent bystanders.
  • Impulse to rescue anyone (or anything) in need: those of us who have a house full of rescued pets can certainly relate to this impulse. It can happen in our personal lives as well, when we attract those who are needy and whom we feel we can help.
  • Isolation from others: you may feel yourself drawing back from people at work or at home, wanting to be alone in the midst of your negative swirl of emotions. This withdrawal walls off those who want to help, even if they could.
  • Sadness and apathy: it may be easy for you to recognize when you feel sad, but less obvious and more dangerous can be apathy. This is particularly true in the professional setting, when you may no longer be able to deliver the empathetic client service and team support that is so necessary in our profession.
  • Needs to voice excessive complaints about management and co-workers: displaced emotions can result in anger or dissatisfaction that manifests itself through complaints about those around you. This can put your career or position at risk as well.
  • Lack of interest in self-care practices: you may know what you need to do to take care of yourself, but you lack the interest or motivation to really do those things. These are typically the things that could help us the most in fighting compassion fatigue!
  • Reoccurring nightmare and flashbacks: if you’re having bad dreams about work, or reliving particularly bad moments or events, this is likely a sign that you are reaching your limit.
  • Persistent physical ailments: you may have nagging ailments that don’t ever seem to disappear. They may not be enough to keep you home from work, but they make it more difficult to get through the work day. Compassion fatigue can result in higher absenteeism as well, where you decide not to even try to face the daily struggle either for physical or emotional reasons.
  • Difficulty concentrating, mentally tired: carrying all of that emotional baggage can wear you out mentally, making it more difficult to stay on task or complete your tasks.
  • Prone to accidents: your diverted mental energy increases the risk of making mistakes, both medical and physical. Compassion fatigue can make an organization more prone to having an increase in workers’ comp claims.
There can be personal reasons why we may be susceptible and become affected by compassion fatigue. It helps to look at these internal causes in order to create a plan to minimize compassion fatigue on us as individuals. Then we will look at the effects of the job we do.

Causes of compassion fatigue include:

  • Placing needs of others before your own
  • Unresolved past trauma and pain
  • Lack of healthy life coping skills
  • Lack of self-awareness that limits growth
  • Giving care to others under stress
  • Lack of personal boundaries
  • Inability to communicate needs

When these factors are in place within us, we become more susceptible to compassion fatigue.

Use this Professional Quality of Life Scale to identify your level of  compassion satisfaction and fatigue.

Compassion fatigue in the workplace makes it difficult for each individual to reach their potential, and it is also difficult for the organization as a business to survive and grow. Profitability of the practice is definitely affected when the personal symptoms of compassion fatigue are multiplied by how many team members it affects. What does organizational compassion fatigue look like, so we can recognize these symptoms in our own practice and make necessary changes?

Symptoms of organizational compassion fatigue (Smith, 2008):

  • Excessive amount of worker’s comp claims
  • High absenteeism, turnover
  • Changes in co-workers’ relationships
  • Inability for teams to work well together
  • Team challenges rules and regulations
  • Aggressive behavior among teammates
  • Team unable to complete assigned tasks
  • Team displays lack of flexibility
  • Unhealthy competition among teammates
  • Rampant rumors and gossip
  • Constant changes in practice policies

In an article by Paul B. Hofmann appearing in the Healthcare Executive in Sep/Oct 2009, if employees do not believe they are respected and appreciated for their efforts, and if they do not feel cared about by those who have responsibility for them, it will be more difficult for them to establish and maintain a truly caring environment for patients (and clients). “Inevitably, compassion fatigue will have an adverse impact on staff recruitment, retention, morale, and performance,” says Hofmann.

The place to start with your team is to bring the topic out in the open, so team members can discuss how they feel about the work they do. Creating this “safe space” helps to contribute to a culture of compassion—this is the nemesis of burnout and compassion fatigue!

For global readers, a calculator to convert laboratory values, dosages, and other measurements to SI units can be found here.

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