No member of the veterinary team is safe from a particular kind of emotional trauma common among professions dominated by compassionate, caring people wanting to ease the suffering of others, according to Katherine Dobbs.
Compassion fatigue, known also as secondary traumatic stress disorder, is as real as any physical injury, said Dobbs, a veterinary management and human resources consultant. Left untreated, compassion fatigue jeopardizes not just the employee but also a veterinary practice's bottom line.
Dobbs, who began her career in veterinary medicine as a registered veterinary technician nearly 20 years ago, spoke during the AAHA meeting in Toronto March 25 about ways of identifying and dealing with compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue is defined as emotional exhaustion experienced by caregivers frequently exposed to highly stressful situations. Persons experiencing compassion fatigue may isolate themselves, become increasingly apathetic, complain excessively or blame others, lose interest in their appearance and hygiene, or abuse alcohol and drugs.
Veterinary professionals are at risk because they deal regularly with traumatized patients and clients. "From the front desk to the back office," no member of the practice staff is immune to the emotional impact such events bring, Dobbs observed, adding that masking feelings is part of the job at the veterinary practice.
"We are the only profession that walks from a euthanasia with a family we've known for years to another room with a new puppy, and we have to be all smiles," she said.
Most people choose a career in veterinary medicine out of affection for animals. Yet these good intentions invariably come into conflict with the day-to-day reality found at any veterinary practice, from fee disputes and staff discord to long hours and administration of euthanasia. It's enough to result in feelings of anger and despair. "We must recognize there is an emotional cost to being a veterinary professional," Dobbs said.
Surveys of veterinary practice staff found that job satisfiers such as contributing to an animal's recovery and receiving positive feedback from clients help overcome compassion fatigue. Preventing job stressors from overwhelming job satisfiers is essential to an employee's emotional well-being, Dobbs said. For instance, a staff member who spends more of her workday placating angry clients than interacting with animals is at risk, she explained.
The level of veterinary workplace stressors can vary according to the type of practice, according to Dobbs. Veterinary emergency practice employees and those at many types of specialty practices can be at greater risk of compassion fatigue on account of the high numbers of seriously ill patients they see.
Dobbs says the veterinary profession has been slow to recognize the reality of compassion fatigue, which more times than not is mistaken for job burnout. The two conditions are different, however, and each has its own causes and remedies.
Burnout is situational and a consequence of stresses in the work environment, Dobbs explained. An overly demanding boss, long hours, and inadequate pay and benefits are examples of stressors that can cause an employee to experience job burnout. Compassion fatigue occurs when a traumatic event harms or severs the emotional bond between a caregiver and patient.
"Burnout is associated with where you work. Compassion fatigue is associated with the work you do," Dobbs explained. "Joining a different practice may address burnout but compassion fatigue comes with you."
An important reason for identifying and minimizing compassion fatigue is its adverse effects on business, according to Dobbs. Failure to address the problem in the person sets the stage for "organizational compassion fatigue"—a toxic work environment that hinders efficiency and limits a practice's growth potential, she explained.
Symptoms of organizational compassion fatigue include high absenteeism and turnover, excessive numbers of workers' compensation claims, inability to complete tasks, rampant rumors and gossip, lack of team cohesion, unhealthy competition, and even aggression among staff members.
The first step in minimizing the effects of compassion fatigue is recognizing it exists. "Compassion fatigue is a hazard in our profession. If we make people aware of it, then that can protect employees and our organization," Dobbs said.
People can protect themselves from compassion fatigue through the practice of self-care. As Dobbs explained, self-care entails an individual taking time to meet mental, physical, and emotional needs, identifying personal goals and objectives, and learning to say "no" while also supporting others.
Failure to address compassion fatigue in an employee sets the stage for organizational compassion fatigue— a toxic work environment that hinders efficiency and limits a veterinary practice's growth potential.
"If we can take better care of ourselves, we can take better care of our patients," she said.
Employers can limit compassion fatigue in the workplace in a number of ways, such as monitoring workloads so no one is overburdened and insisting staff take scheduled breaks, lunches, and time off. Dobbs recommends employers offer benefits that support a worker's self-care. This can include paying half of a monthly gym membership or allowing unpaid time off when an employee's pet dies.
Making time to debrief following a traumatic episode can help employees cope with negative feelings. "Talk about it, and make sure no one feels guilty," Dobbs advised.
In addition, employers should ensure staff are adequately trained and have opportunities to learn new skills. Doing so demonstrates the employee is a valued member of the practice team, explained Dobbs, who also sees advantages in team-building exercises to promote strong interpersonal relationships in the workplace.