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Exposing compassion fatigue

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01 December 2011, at 12:00am

KATHERINE DOBBS introduces a new series looking at how ‘mental fatigue’ can affect the way we work and other aspects of our lives, the signs to look for, and the need to learn how to cope with it

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? Whether you are the family veterinarian who is now saying goodbye to puppies and  kittens you first met 10 or 15 years earlier when you entered the profession, or you are the emergency clinic technician who must  say goodbye to many patients all in one day after barely getting to know their families, or you are the front office team member at a specialty practice who faces the brunt of emotional eruptions from clients day in and day out, we are all susceptible. Experts agree that the more you know about compassion fatigue, the better prepared you are to recognise 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 and 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 and Roop, 2006). Combined together, compassion fatigue has been called the hurt of the heart (Ogilvie, 2006). Let’s look at symptoms of compassion fatigue so we can recognise the condition when it may be staring back at us from the mirror:

  • 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 burst, and this may be in your workplace or your home, making innocent bystanders the victims. 
  • 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 walls off those who want to help, even if they could. 
  • Sadness and apathy. It may be easy for you to recognise 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.
  • Need 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!
  • Recurring nightmare and flashbacks. If you’re having bad dreams about work, or reliving particularly bad moments or events while awake, this could be a sure 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.
  • 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. When you clock out at the end of the day or shift, your compassion fatigue isn’t left behind in your locker. It follows you home, and affects  your relationships with your spouse or partner, children and friends, and ultimately decreases your overall quality of life. These are just a few of the ways that compassion fatigue affects us at home: 
  • withdrawn,
  • decreased interest in intimacy,
  • mistrust,
  • isolation from friends,
  • impact on parenting,
  • projection of anger or blame,
  • intolerance.
We chose this career because we are compassionate, caring people. Unfortunately, that also makes us more susceptible to compassion fatigue. If we had no compassion, we would not have to worry about the fatigue. Only compassionate, empathic, loving and caring people suffer from compassion fatigue – the very people who are so vital to the animal-care field (Figley and Roop, 2006). The first step is to understand and accept the emotional strain that is part of our career. We must recognise the toll it takes on us daily, yet also recognise our great potential to overcome or  minimise its effects. We understand and accept that sadness and pain are a part of our job. We begin to understand that our feelings of anger, depression, and sadness are best dealt with if we
recognise them and allow them to wash over and past us. We recognise our incredible potential to help animals. We ARE changing the world! (Fakkema, 1991). What can we do about compassion fatigue, aside from leaving the profession and giving up the careers we love? We have to fight back, on a personal level, and an organisational level. We can make a difference, in our lives as well as the lives of pets and families. More to come next month in this series on compassion fatigue…