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Practicing Self-Care as a Veterinary Professional

Veterinarians and veterinary technicians are care-givers. This line of work extends past just dispensing medical advice on how to get pets back to their healthiest; animal care is a career that requires compassion and empathy. And by facing challenges that come with the job such as angry pet owners (as mentioned last week), sick animals, and hard emotional choices, it’s likely that as a vet or vet tech you will experience some form of burnout and compassion fatigue. 

Caretakers experience burn-out from constantly having to balance both the physical and intellectual demands of the job with the emotional demands as well. This can look like burn-out and exhaustion that extends past just physical exhaustion (although there is plenty of that). And while burnout can be addressed, compassion fatigue involves the deep empathetic commitment a professional has to their clients. Both are the result of the constant care and attention provided to sick animals as well as having to cope with the emotional difficulties facing the owner. The results for caretakers can range from mood swings, depression, the inability to concentrate, and worse—both physically and emotionally—with potentially troubling coping tactics. 

It is both necessary and important to try and impart positive coping mechanisms to preemptively reduce compassion fatigue and burnout. So, as a veterinary care-giver, what can you do to decrease burnout and compassion fatigue? 

1. Practice restorative self-care. You cannot practice long-term animal care without taking the time to take care of yourself. This means focusing on nutrition, exercising regularly, and speaking to a professional to help lessen any emotional burden. But it also is ensuring that you find what fulfills you emotionally outside of work. Scrolling through your phone or watching TV are often distractions from self-care and personal growth, so try focusing on things that bring you joy that also restore and fulfill you. These can be things like reading, going on a hike, or cooking. So long as it involves an interest outside of animal care and restores your spirit, it can be anything! If you’re having trouble thinking of things that restore your spirit, try and list several things that you enjoy outside of your veterinary career and then make a conscious decision to incorporate these activities in your daily schedule—in one way or another. Take some time every day to prioritize your interests and practice mindful self-care. 

2. Set boundaries. As mentioned in the previous week’s blog, it’s important to try and not take the anger of an irate customer to heart since it’s not personal. However, this is much harder said than done. Still, it’s necessary to remember that you are not responsible for the emotions of others. It is not your personal responsibility to save the entire world and you can only do the best that you can. With that in mind, it’s important to establish boundaries. This means developing the strength to say “no.” Often within animal care, it is easy to feel pressured into doing something that is not in your best interest. It is feasible and reasonable to exercise empathy in your work and provide alternate options when faced with a scenario where you are feeling pressured, but you should never extend yourself outside of your comfort zone. This also means that when faced with an angry or unreasonable client, you can hear them out but you are not under any obligation to withstand verbal abuse or emotional manipulation from a client. You are also within your right to set boundaries and disengage from the conversation if it takes an ugly turn. 

3. Focus on the good cases. It is difficult to maintain perspective when you feel over-involved with the negatives of the job. All people generally remember bad experiences more quickly and easily than they do good experiences. However, all of that negative rumination will ultimately lead to compassion fatigue and burnout. It’s essential to not internalize all of the negativity and stressors until the depressing aspects of the field become normalized. Combat this by focusing on the good cases. In your profession as a vet or vet tech you are regularly helping animals and ensuring that those you serve live happy and healthy lives so it might be more difficult to spot the wins. But these can be instances where you dealt with an appreciative and grateful pet owner or that you were able to resolve a particularly difficult problem for an animal who would otherwise be suffering. Every day is filled with successes if you give yourself the space to evaluate.   

4. Validate your grief. When something tragic occurs at the job you don’t have to bury it or pretend that it’s normal. Honor your grief by acknowledging when something that occurred resulted in you feeling emotional and sad. Do you have someone to talk to that can relate to the emotions of being a veterinary professional? It can be helpful to talk to coworkers who have experienced similar tough cases, especially those involving abuse or neglect.  Make sure you have someone you trust who can sympathize and allow you to blow off steam so you can move forward. Be wary about feeding frustrations though, and be sure to maintain perspective. Also, be aware that there can be levels of internalized grief that require more direct care. Be sure to reach out to a therapist that specializes in compassion fatigue when you feel hopeless. 

Ultimately, it’s important to take care of yourself while you are taking care of other people’s pets. If you believe that you are exhibiting signs of burnout or compassion fatigue, make sure you take time to self-assess your level of self-compassion and job satisfaction.  Are you familiar with resources available to veterinarians and vet techs to assist with self-care? The American Veterinary Medical Association provides an entire list of available resources and additional tools to help you take better care of your emotional and mental health (found here). 

At the end of the day, try to remember why you chose this career and what it was that made you initially fall in love with providing the best care to pets.