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November issue /2021
BURN-OUT OR COMPASSION FATIGUE IN VETERINARY MEDICINE?
Contrary to what one might imagine, being a Veterinarian is an extremely exhausting profession. There are many adversities that we have to face daily in our clinical practice that affect our physical, mental and psychological well-being.
What are the challenges that Veterinarians have to face on a daily basis?
We all have friends and family members who blindly entrust their pets to us, placing an extreme level of trust and hope in us, and see us as "THE" only option for their animals to be saved and treated in the best way possible. This is one of the many factors that contribute to the enormous psychological pressure in veterinary medicine, where failure is never allowed, but in these cases, it’s not even an option.
Another reason for the increased emotional and psychological pressure is the fact that many of our patients are true family members, and are often the only companion of their guardians. So, treating these animals carries a huge responsibility, because guardians can only hope and expect for effective and often miraculous solutions. One thing that guardians often forget is that our pets (with rare exceptions) have a much lower longevity than us, so the likelihood that they will die before us is not a probability, but an unavoidable reality.
What about the financial difficulties that we encounter daily in our veterinary practice? How many animals come to us that need medical care, but the guardian cannot afford it? In these situations, how should we deal with this? We are veterinary doctors, we have the knowledge, we have the tools, so we have an obligation to help? The answer is: we have no obligation! We cannot take on the responsibility and pain of others.... And we cannot do it for sure on a daily, routine basis.... These repeated situations will be the end of us, both emotionally and financially.
Another factor, is the fact that we have to deal with death, with the fact that it is not always possible to save our patients, and all these unsuccessful situations lead to feelings of guilt, remorse and a lot of emotional stress.
On top of all this, we work excessive hours, we don't eat on time or eat healthy meals (who hasn't had a 12-hour shift where the only meal was a coffee and an energy bar?), we don't get quality sleep, and in many situations, we are the emotional garbage / discharge of guardians and co-workers.
All this pressure and wear and tear leads to cases where the stress is so high that many professionals suffer burnouts, psychiatric breakdowns, and even take their own lives. A study conducted by the American Veterinary Medical Association, indicated that 85% of the participants involved mentioned stress and burnout as two important factors affecting well-being in the veterinary community.
As you could read in our September issue, this profession carries a high suicide rate, with a total of 398 suicides reported between 1979 and 2015 in America alone. The veterinary community is estimated to have a suicide rate 3.5 times higher than the general population.
But are Veterinarians suffering from Burnout or Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is a term that describes the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of helping others - often through experiences of stress or trauma. Compassion fatigue is often mistaken for burnout and this is what affects most veterinarians, just like health professionals in any field.
While burnout is one part of this form of fatigue, the term compassion fatigue encompasses a more specific experience, which may be brought on by a stressful workplace or environment, lack of resources, or excessive hours. While burnout is a chronic stress characterized by three dimensions: a feeling of lack of energy, negativism associated with the work environment, and reduced productivity.
There are several factors related to compassion fatigue observed in veterinarians, besides those mentioned above. Veterinarians are continuously exposed to traumatic situations, such as euthanasia, have to deal with high bureaucratic procedures, the lack of medical equipment, the lack of support among colleagues, communication failures in the team, and the requirement of a demanding veterinarian-guardian relationship that implies a very stable emotional component from the veterinarian, since it is necessary to have a strong argumentative capacity, deal with psychological pressure and the extreme trust or distrust of many guardians.
Many veterinarians are not prepared for these emotional issues, it is something that requires a lot of time and practice, which for an inexperienced professional becomes a focus of great physical and emotional exhaustion
How to prevent and fight Compassion Fatigue?
We need to work with veterinary professionals to increase their resilience, which can undoubtedly be trained and developed.
So how do we increase resilience in the work environment in Veterinary Medicine?
- Share ideas, opinions and clinical cases with fellow veterinarians on the team;
- Make use of Veterinary Teleconsulting (Vetexpertise Company) services in order to get help in the most complex clinical cases that take away your time, energy and peace of mind;
- Don’t be the emotional garbage of colleagues or animal guardians - learn to say no to negative and depressing conversations. On the other hand, don't make others your emotional discharge;
- Do physical exercise to relieve emotional stress (minimum 5 hours per week; walking is an excellent option);
- Attend Mindfulness therapies;
- Practice yoga, meditation, and other relaxing activities;
- Have a healthy and balanced diet;
- Have a sleep routine that suits your needs (respect bedtimes whenever possible, don't watch your cell phone or television before going to sleep, etc.);
- Take the positive out of your day-to-day life as a Veterinarian: interact in a positive way with the animals (those wonderful puppies and kittens that come along); learn to celebrate all achievements no matter how small they may seem to us, etc.;
- Make pet guardians responsible for the costs associated with their pet's own medical treatment;
- Encourage guardians to invest in health insurance for their animals;
- Participate in campaigns to promote responsible adoptions - Why adopt an animal? The impact of the animal on the family budget? Pet health insurance, how it works?;
- Volunteer once a week/month so that you can contribute for free to help animals in need and at risk, a way for us to satisfy our inherent need to help without compromising our own veterinary practice.