March 24th, 2020

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Compassion Fatigue Awareness in Stressful Times

Right now, nearly all veterinary practice owners and managers are dealing with difficult and stressful decisions. We are working to keep our doors open and minimizing the effect of the COVID-19 virus on our teams. Unfortunately, many of us are having to lay off team members who have families to feed. This is heartbreaking for practice leaders, as many of us have come to love our teams as though they are family. These are difficult times, and it can be easy to become caught up in the emotions that come with these conversations.

You may have heard the term “compassion fatigue” in the past. Essentially, compassion fatigue is a type of secondary stress that occurs from an intense desire to help others. It is characterized by both emotional and physical exhaustion and a decrease in the ability to empathize. Unfortunately, these symptoms usually end up manifesting in ways outside of the primary stressor. This can mean arguing with friends and family, lacking patience for small transgressions, headaches, sleep disturbances, and even a lack of self-care. 

Compassion fatigue has been a hot topic in the veterinary field for some time now, but it is especially important to consider the impact of this condition when we are having to care for our patients, our teams, and our families. Any individual person would struggle with the amount of stress that you, as a practice leader, are carrying in your shoulders.

We wanted to share with you some ways that you can prevent compassion fatigue, and how to combat feeling overwhelmed both at the hospital and at home.

  1. Practice self-care: One of the best ways to prevent compassion fatigue is to care for yourself. This can take a large amount of effort, especially if you are a caretaker of others at home. Usually, self-care will involve eating a balanced, nutritious diet, participating in some kind of exercise or conscious movement, maintaining a routine sleep schedule, and honoring your emotional needs (more on this later).
  2. Set emotional boundaries: Sometimes we can feel as though our client’s problems and our employee’s problems are our problems. It is important to understand that, while we can do everything we can to help clients and team members, our ability to solve their problems is limited. Be OK with using the tools you have available, and let the client work with their own set of tools. Understand that any cuts you make to team hours are in the interest of keeping the hospital operational so they can be brought back in the future. Don’t try to solve other’s problems, and be sure you are making decisions that will help keep your hospital’s doors open or allow them to re-open when this crisis is over. 
  3. Engage in hobbies: This is an important aspect of balance. Be sure that you are taking the time to participate in hobbies (that allow for social distancing, of course). If your hobby is painting, set aside time to paint every day. If your hobby is Netflix and chill with your pup or kitty, be sure you get an hour or two of quality TV time in. It is easy to feel guilty taking time for ourselves, but it is one of the most important steps you can take to defend and protect your emotional state.
  4. Use positive coping strategies: Being at home with our families can be enough to drive some of us to drink. Pair that with being at home with our families more than usual, plus the difficult conversations we are having, it can be easy to dive into negative coping strategies such as drinking or other self-harm. While having a drink is OK for most people, be conscious if you are starting to form bad habits.
  5. Create work strategies: Be sure you are taking regular breaks, eating and drinking at regular intervals, taking a few minutes to walk around the house, and taking other distractions. Working for 10 hours without a break increases stress and actually decreases productivity. It also increases the chances of mistakes and sets a bad example for your team. It is OK to walk away for a few minutes.

Unfortunately, many people are fearful or uncomfortable discussing how they are feeling because we usually try to distance ourselves from our emotions while at work. However, this is not the time for hiding behind a stiff upper lip. If you are feeling overwhelmed, or if you feel that your emotions are becoming too much, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional. Your GP can provide you with references if you aren’t sure where to look. Your health insurance company may offer an Employee Assistance Program that you can contact for help as well. There are e-therapy providers as well, which help maintain physical distancing and allow you to seek help on your schedule.

Remember, you are not in this alone. We are all in this together. Every business in the world is affected by the COVID-19 virus and associated laws and regulations. Don’t allow your stress levels to go unchecked. Reach out to those who can help, whether it is a family member, a friend, or mental health professional.