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Knowing Your Limits: Dealing With Veterinary Compassion Fatigue

Knowing Your Limits: Dealing With Veterinary Compassion Fatigue

There is a popular expression that goes “you can’t draw water from an empty well.” It means that if you aren’t taking care of yourself you will be unable to take care of others. Practicing self-care as a veterinarian is essential; prioritizing your own well being is what will enable you to provide the care necessary for pets in need. 

Being a veterinarian, veterinary technician, or any other animal health care provider is a job that requires not only skill and dedication but also empathy. Being a vet can be a highly rewarding career including satisfying compensation, moments of great success with difficult medical cases, and access to research and educational opportunities to expand your own expertise. 

However, the rewarding aspects of being an animal health care professional also comes with a number of emotionally and physically strenuous burdens. It’s no secret that no day will look the same when you’re a vet and the hours are long and arduous with physically demanding work. And then there are the other struggles that come with the job: the loss of a client’s pet, clients unhappy with the cost of their bill, and difficult medical cases with little hope for a positive outcome. 

If you don’t tend to your own self-care and neglect what you need you’ll experience what’s called compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue can take many forms, including depression, lethargy, and disinterest in activities that used to bring you joy. This kind of burnout can result in an intense dislike of the job, quitting your position, or worse. 

So what can you do to combat compassion fatigue? 

The first is establishing a strong foundation and support network comprised of friends, family, and supportive colleagues. This support network coupled with knowing that you need to establish limits for the sake of your own health is a goal-focused first step. By developing a chain of individuals in your life that can help you when you are experiencing burnout will be an essential tool as they will be able to help you assess when you need to take time to practice self-care. 

After determining who are trusted individuals you can turn to, the next thing you can do to combat compassion fatigue is to be attuned to your feelings and voicing them when necessary.  Everyone has a bad day when it comes to their job, but if your bad days are outnumbering the good days it’s time to evaluate your dissatisfaction and air these concerns. If you find that the bad days are resulting in physical problems such as anxiety, forgetfulness, or loss of focus it might be time to seek out a professional ear to help you while you voice your problems. You can turn to your network first, but if they find that the problems are outside of their scope of expertise a professional will be able to help you sort out your feelings. Being able to voice your concerns could help de-escalate issues and release negative feelings you are holding onto instead of burying the problems. 

It’s important to be able to discuss your feelings in order to give those anxieties the validity they deserve. It is also essential to take time off. Making space to focus on quality time off from veterinary care is important in order to recharge for the job. Your well-being is contingent upon taking breaks where you are able to completely disconnect from the stress of the job. Think about the things that bring you comfort and joy and then make a commitment to take the time and honor it as though it was an appointment at the clinic.

What are the things that provide you the most satisfaction outside of helping animals? 

Find ways to change your outlook. If you find that you are becoming numb or apathetic to the cases and clients at your clinic, it’s time to change your perspective. You can do this by exploring what drew you to veterinary medicine to begin with. That could be things like volunteering your time in the community. It doesn’t necessarily have to be animal care related, but anything that nurtures your empathetic nature will jump-start your interest in helping your clients and their beloved pets again. 

Does your outside match your inside? Taking care of yourself physically is as important as taking care of your mental and emotional health. Compassion fatigue and burnout can bleed into all aspects of your well-being. There are simple but necessary things you can do to help combat burnout by prioritizing your physical care. These are things like following simple steps such as making sure that you get plenty of rest and hydration. With the long hours that come with working as a vet, it can be hard to prioritize sleep drinking eight glasses of water a day. But the longer your neglect these necessities the worst off you’ll be. Ensuring that you get eight hours of rest a night along with eight glasses of water will positively affect your physical and mental health. 

Being a veterinarian is a vocation and calling that has numerous benefits and rewards. Your natural empathy is a great resource when it comes to providing nurturing and skilled animal care, however, when you feel the beginning effects of burnout and compassion fatigue it is important to be proactive. If you follow the above tips, it should help make your work-life balance more manageable and help you maintain the professionalism and compassion that makes you a great animal care provider.