Veterinary burnout and compassion fatigue were already problems for the veterinary profession before the pandemic began. After COVID-19 hit, the extra stressors involved in seeing patients—coupled with more pet appointment requests caused by the pandemic pet boom—made the situation worse.
A few examples:
- In June of 2020, an informal survey of AAHA-accredited hospitals revealed that while staff were grateful to be busy, the pandemic was taking a mental and physical toll. “Tempers are shorter than normal, and our edges are beginning to fray,” said Scott Driever, DVM and owner of Animal Hospital Highway 6 in Sugar Land, TX.
- In an August 2020 article by WDET, Dr. Melissa Owings, president of the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association, said the pandemic had been very difficult for veterinarians and technicians at her clinic in Jackson, MI. “We’re seeing more burnout, more compassion fatigue in veterinary medicine than I think we have ever seen before,” said Owings.
All of this means one thing. If you’re experiencing veterinary burnout or compassion fatigue, you’re not alone. Given stay-at-home orders, physical distancing, and the general sense of isolation imposed by COVID-19 measures, we felt this was an extra important message to emphasize.
The Difference Between Veterinary Burnout and Compassion Fatigue
While veterinary burnout and compassion fatigue are often viewed as the same thing, they’re different. As noted by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association:
“[Burnout] is often distinguished as being different from compassion fatigue in that burnout arises from where one works, whereas compassion fatigue is associated with the work you do.”
Said another way: Where strategies to combat veterinary burnout can involve something as simple as taking a relaxing walk to regain balance and perspective, walking away from compassion fatigue is far more difficult and complex.
The Complexity Is Captured in “Every Time”
A short social post called “Every Time” (believed to have been authored by Dr. Tamara Vetro Widenhouse) summarizes the nature and complexity of compassion fatigue. Written as a letter of illumination to pet owners, “Every Time” pulls no punches in its acerbic spotlight on some of the major causes of veterinary compassion fatigue:
- Dealing with disease and death
- Witnessing traumatic signs of animal abuse
- Tangling with difficult, demanding, or dispassionate pet owners
- Being placed in an unconscionable situation when pet owners refuse diagnosis but want to know what’s wrong with their pets
- Feelings of profound failure from moral stressors like euthanizing an animal because a pet owner doesn’t have pet insurance or doesn’t want to pay for a life-saving treatment
The emotional toll can feel like a tangible weight for veterinary professionals when compounded by other factors:
- Pet-owner expectations, complaints, and even outright threats piled on top of the normal pressures of working in a busy clinic
- Exhaustion from long hours and work overload to make sure pets get the care they deserve
- Clients insisting that veterinarians should provide free pet care because “they should want to help animals”
- Going out of pocket to care for abandoned or surrendered pets
- Personal financial pressures and educational debt-to-income ratio
It can all build up and swirl together into a critical emotional mass, and the warning signs of compassion fatigue can show themselves in many ways:
- Insomnia and nightmares
- Physical and mental fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- Frequent complaining about life and/or work
- Feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness
- An inability to find pleasure in life
- Self-isolation and bottling up emotions
- Feeling burdened by the suffering of pets and blaming people for callousness
- Self-denial and poor self-care
- Alcohol and drug abuse
The Good News
- The pandemic will not last forever.
- Veterinary medical associations offer many articles, tools, and resources for veterinary professionals to deal with veterinary burnout and compassion fatigue. Here are a few:
- Well-Being Tools and Resources by the AVMA, including Assess Your Well-Being, Self-Care for Veterinary Professionals, and Work and Compassion Fatigue.
- Veterinary Health and Wellness Resources by the CVMA, including Recognizing the Signs of Burnout and Compassion Fatigue, Mental Health Webinars, and Who Ya’ Gonna Call? Mental Health Resource List.
These are just a few tools and resources available to help veterinary professionals with veterinary burnout and compassion fatigue.
Final Thoughts: Reach Out, Stay Connected
On its Work and Compassion Fatigue page, the AVMA writes, “It can be important to connect with colleagues who experience the same types of traumas and moral stresses as you do.” The AVMA also cites a JAVMA quote: “People who work in organizations that have ‘moral climates’ where they can discuss their moral dilemmas and benefit from other social support seem to have better outcomes.”
So, in addition to utilizing mental health tools and resources, don’t be afraid to reach out and connect with people if you’re experiencing veterinary burnout or compassion fatigue.
Personal health and happiness aren’t just integral to practicing good medicine.
They’re immeasurably valuable in and of themselves.