Understanding the stages of compassion fatigue

By Marketing

10 September 2021 5 min read


As a caring professional within the veterinary industry, you are exposed to varying degrees of trauma on a daily basis: stressed customers dealing with financial difficulties, animal cruelty, and emotional customers coping with their pet euthanasia—just a fraction of your daily workload. Add to that a hectic schedule packed with consultation after consultation and, potentially, a lack of work/life balance or self-care routine and you have a recipe for emotional exhaustion.

What about your personal life? If you are a parent, or indeed, a partner you may arrive home from an emotionally jarring day in practice with an empty empathy cup. This has the potential to make personal relationships, both romantic and familial, even more challenging.

You entered the industry based on your natural capacity for compassion and empathy, but over time, the very thing which acted as your catalyst to entry may end up being the exact reason for wanting to leave. Enter: compassion fatigue.

Understanding the compassion fatigue path

  1. When you enter the veterinary profession, your enthusiasm and excitement to perform the job mark the first phase in your compassion fatigue cycle–The Zealot. Your unyielding passion and zest for the role can cause you to take too much on, thus starting the journey to fatigue.

  2. Phase two—Irritability—manifests as feelings of cynicism. You may feel like work is not entirely as you expected it would be. Feelings that you are not doing the best for those you originally wanted to help may emerge in this phase and you begin to question your career path.

  3. The next phase is Withdrawal. Here, we experience feelings of decreased job satisfaction, disappointment, frustration and even guilt. You may experience detachment from the role in this phase of the cycle.

  4. The final phase is known as Zombie. Here, you may experience an inability to cope with work stressors healthily; you may feel angry or resentful; you may even be questioning your career entirely or even consider leaving the industry. Have you experienced any of these feelings?

The compassion fatigue path chart: going from the zealot, irritability, withdrawal then zombie.

What are some of the symptoms of compassion fatigue?

  • Weight loss
  • Decreased job satisfaction
  • Chronic emotional or physical exhaustion
  • Depersonalisation or detachment
  • Feelings of irritability at work or in the home
  • Sleep issues
  • Headaches

In his book, ‘When Helping Hurts’, F. Oshberg, MD explains

quotation marks in greenFirst, you should understand that [compassion fatigue] is a process. It’s not a matter of one day, you’re living your life with a great deal of energy and enjoyment, and the next, you wake up exhausted and devoid of any energy—both physical and emotional. Compassion fatigue develops over time—taking weeks, sometimes years to surface. It’s a low level, chronic clouding of caring and concern for others in your life—whether you work in or outside the home. Over time, your ability to feel and care for others becomes eroded through overuse of your skills of compassion. You also might experience an emotional blunting—whereby you react to situations differently than one would normally expect.quotation marks in green

As a veterinary professional, compassion fatigue is a natural part of the job and one you will need to learn to manage effectively. But how can we become better at dealing with compassion fatigue?

  • Check-in with yourself. Become more mindful of your feelings, daily, and practice self-
    monitoring to identify shifts in your behaviour.

  • Move your body regularly. Whether that’s in the gym, through dance, yoga, running or surfing,
    shifting your attention toward your body can help refuel that compassion cup you, so often, need to
    pour from.

  • Journaling and meditation. Taking time to stop and turn inward can give your emotional brain
    some time to focus on you. Some studies have found a positive correlation between meditation and an
    increased capacity for compassion.

  • Reaching out to support groups or taking part in talk therapy can also play a huge part in
    coping with the potential for fatigue and increasing positive mental health in general.

  • Finally, ensuring you have adequate sleep and proper nutrition can help your body and mind deal
    with the normal stressors of everyday life. Just consider how differently you deal with situations
    when you are hungry and tired!

Remember, there is always help and support available in difficult times. If you are struggling, please speak to your GP or local mental health professional.