Working in veterinary medicine and being part of the everyday struggle veterinary professionals go through is not easy. Every day you face terminally ill patients, owners that have no clue of what is going on with their pet and cannot understand the severity of the situation, every day you deal with ignorant people and animals dying around you with nothing you can do and that takes a huge toll on your mental health and state.
In general, the veterinary profession, regardless if you are a veterinarian, veterinary technician or a veterinary assistant, is one of the most stressful jobs you can get. Every day is different than the one before and stress is like a morning coffee, you cannot go without it.
But burnout and compassion fatigue can be categorized into two different categories because they are triggered by different stress factors.
What is “burnout”?
Burnout is usually described as a result of too much stress at the workplace. Regardless if that is an overly demanding boss, too long hours, pulling double shifts, or working every weekend and holidays, having inadequate pay for the education and the hours, and having less or not having benefits at all at your job can be one of the most common stressors that can cause burnout.
People working in the veterinary field already know what to expect and what they get into, but sometimes even the smallest amount of added stress in their workday can lead to burnout. There is the difference between loving and loathing what you do. The classical signs of burnout can be physical and emotional exhaustion, being distant and alienated from your colleagues and all job-related and after-work activities, and, of course, the most classic sign is reduced performance when it comes to doing regular and simple tasks.
Burnout is much easier to deal with than compassion fatigue. If you think that you’re experiencing burnout symptoms, changing scenery usually does the trick and the symptoms fade away. Sometimes it needs to totally change the workplace and the shifts, to change to whole work dynamic to actually feel relief and change.
It is very important for persons who feel burnout symptoms to address them as soon as possible and deal with the problems accordingly. If the problem is the workplace, changing clinics might help. If the problem is a certain colleague that is giving you a hard time, talking to them and trying to resolve the problem can help with how you feel and be better at your job.
How is compassion fatigue presented in veterinary professionals?
Compassion fatigue is totally different than burnout and is not that easily fixed. Compassion fatigue is not situational, it’s brought by dealing with patients and their owners and it cannot be reversed by changing scenery or in other words changing the workplace.
Compassion fatigue can present itself even as physical illness. The usual symptoms of compassion fatigue are emotional numbness, social awkwardness and withdrawal from social situations, indifference towards people and situations, sleeping difficulties (either insomnia or hypersomnia), eating difficulties (trouble losing weight or trouble keeping the meal down), anxiety at work, chronic illnesses and weaker immune system, generally feeling overwhelmed with even the simplest tasks. Among the most common symptoms, we can see emotional pain along with hopelessness, neglection and feeling misunderstood.
In both cases, even though burnout may seem easier to fix, the most important thing is to ask for help. No matter if you talk with a professional, one or more of your colleagues, your best friend or a member of your family, you have to make the first step. After acknowledging that you are feeling and experiencing difficulties at work (regardless the reason) it’s easier to fix the problem.
Prevention is always better than fixing what is damaged. Just remember that in an equation, the most important value is you and your mental health. Always remember that no matter how awful your day at work was, you must find time and place to detox and to make sure that you’re healthy and ready to be the superhero everybody expects you to be. You’re the most important person in the room, always. Take care of yourself before taking care of all the others.