It’s real: Common misconceptions about compassion fatigue

7 min read

I was sitting in my Clinical Psychology class with my eyes fixed on the TV. I watched as a therapist counseled a young father as he described his daughter passing away in his arms. The anxiety, stress and heartbreak that I felt as tears nearly fell down my cheeks would be an unknown catalyst to my future.

I have the privilege of traveling around the United States and talking to thousands of veterinary professionals about a topic that’s close to my heart, Compassion Fatigue. I have engaged in many conversations with, and read a few articles by, professionals who don’t believe in Compassion Fatigue. Still, I have also interviewed many veterinary professionals who have been dramatically impacted by this condition that others do not believe in. One thing I have heard repeatedly is that Compassion Fatigue is an overused term, which I do not necessarily disagree with. What I would argue is that it is overused because it is grossly misunderstood.

At the beginning of all my workshops I always start out by asking the same question: “What is Compassion Fatigue?” In order to put your finger on something, you must know what it is. Imagine a doctor diagnosing a disease without knowing what its symptoms are, or its name. As I delve into what Compassion Fatigue truly is, it’s absolutely amazing to see the look on many faces in the audience. It’s as if they’ve had an epiphany. Many of them go from leaning back in their chairs as skeptics, to leaning forward as engaged participants.

Another often-used term is Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS). At the beginning of this blog, I shared my story about the impact I felt when hearing about the father’s first-hand trauma. In this case, I was experiencing Secondary Traumatic Stress.

Imagine how you would you feel if a long-term client of yours called, frantic and distraught: “This is Mrs. Randall, I just ran over Gyzmoe. It was a complete accident and I am so worried for him. He is not breathing well and his leg looks broken. We are on our way in, please save my Gyzzy.” The increase in heartrate that you would feel, the stress, the emotions, that is STS. This is what ends up leading to Compassion Fatigue.

Now that we’ve talked about the definition, let’s move on. The main reason I wanted to write this blog was to address many of the misconceptions I’ve heard while traveling and educating the profession on this topic.

It’s the loss of Compassion:

Compassion Fatigue is literally emotional fatigue from consistently providing compassion and empathy to your clients/patients. It is Compassion Fatigue, not Compassion Loss.

“I don’t experience it, so no one else does”:

I’ve seen this alarming mindset many times, and it’s specifically very dangerous in those with leadership positions in the hospital.

Only DVMs can experience it:

Anyone working in a hospital can experience Compassion Fatigue, regardless of position. As a manager, I often had staff that needed to discuss very traumatic personal/professional things with me. As in the hysterical client phone call scenario I just described, everyone can experience it; we are all just exposed to it at different levels.

It’s Burnout:

This is the thing that Compassion Fatigue gets confused the most with. To keep things brief, you can go here to learn about the differences. Compassion Fatigue is a very real thing, and it is not helping the suicide rate in the veterinary profession. We, as leaders in this industry, must destigmatize the idea of Compassion Fatigue, and the effect it has on this industry. By acknowledging it, and speaking about it, we will be setting the example.

It’s OK that your job impacts you emotionally.

It’s OK that giving so much of yourself to your clients is too much to handle sometimes.

It’s OK to talk to others about it.

Compassion Fatigue is a real thing, and if you ever need anyone to talk to, I am here for you.

Brandon Hess
[email protected]

Hess, Brandon

Hess, Brandon

Brandon Hess CVPM, CCFP is an associate consultant with VetSupport and a founding member of the Southwestern Ohio Veterinary Management Association. He can be reached at [email protected]

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