Professional Burnout vs. Compassion Fatigue vs. Vicarious Traumatization in the Veterinary Business

Now that mental health issues are finally getting the attention they have long deserved, the psychological risks that certain professionals face are at long last being brought into the limelight. Unfortunately, despite the great number of studies and articles tackling the connection between work and mental health, it continues to be difficult for many to determine which is which. Given this reality, this article will be defining and comparing three of the most common mental health issues veterinarians are at risk of: professional burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious traumatization.

Professional Burnout

According to the World Health Organization, professional burnout is: “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Most of the time, it can be characterized by reduced professional efficacy, feelings of extreme exhaustion, and increased mental distance from one’s job. While anyone can experience professional burnout, certain professionals are found to be at a higher risk than others.

Sone of the symptoms of occupational burnout:

  • Alienation from work-related activities
  • Emotional fatigue
  • Reduced performance
  • Physical signs (headaches, insomnia)

The American Medical Association estimates that almost 50 percent of physicians experience symptoms of serious burnout due to the demands of the job. Managing patient care and working long hours entails serious stress which must be addressed to avoid professional burnout. Social workers, too, are more likely to develop burnout because of the painful realities, patient difficulties, and structural hurdles they must face on a daily basis. 

Crippling burnout has also been found to be prevalent in the veterinary industry — especially among younger professionals. Dr. Ivan Zak’s latest survey noted how individuals under the age of 30 who are working in this sector experienced the most significant burnout. While the specific reasons behind this phenomenon still require further study, Dr. Zak speculates that the younger generation’s emphasis on work-life balance can be a factor, as it is hard for them to handle the long hours and lack of control prevalent in veterinary medicine.

Looking to address this problem in my dissertation, I have considered a correlation between veterinary and human healthcare industries and proposed that implementing lean thinking methodology can help support veterinary employees’ mental well-being and keep their motivation levels high

Dr. Ivan Zak

Avoiding Professional Burnout

The first step in keeping burnout at bay is recognizing professional burnout symptoms which can impact workers in the veterinary industry. Veterinary technicians and staffers who appear physically and emotionally exhausted may be experiencing the first stage of professional burnout. A cynical belief that one’s work is failing to accomplish meaningful goals is another sign that burnout is beginning to take hold. Practice managers should carefully monitor their workers to ensure that detachment from the job and a sense of malaise are not settling over the workplace. 

While avoiding occupational burnout begins with recognition and acknowledgement by management, the concern of fellow workers is also needed to ensure professional resiliency. Cultivate a considerate workplace culture that ensures team members are looking out for one another to prevent burnout from spreading within the ranks. Veterinary staffers should not hesitate to report professional burnout symptoms like insomnia or isolation to supervisors who can offer help to struggling workers. 

Expunging occupational burnout begins with fostering a healthy workplace culture that shuns toxicity. Managers should ensure that staffers have adequate time off, are maintaining a physically healthy lifestyle, and feel as if they are part of the broader team. 

Compassion Fatigue

Just like professional burnout, compassion fatigue can also be considered another form of job stress. Compassion fatigue focuses on the emotional exhaustion individuals feel after repeated exposure to trauma. Whereas professional burnout is a personal experience, compassion fatigue is more relational to the experiences of others. Empathetic employees who are exposed to the trauma of others take on the emotional burden of their colleagues or patients before eventually hitting a breaking point. After too much exposure to the trauma of others, they may become incapable of exercising empathy or relating to another individual for some time. Understanding burnout vs compassion fatigue is an important step of avoiding both in the veterinary industry. 

Compassion fatigue is very common among those in the caring fields, like nurses. The top careers in the nursing field all require a lot of empathy and patience in order to deal with dozens of patients on a daily basis. Struggling with human or animal patients who are not in the best of health can be an emotionally exhausting experience. Dealing with family members of ill patients is another emotional struggle in and of itself. That is why it is important for nurses  to understand burnout vs compassion fatigue to ensure they can appropriately react to their own mental healthcare issues.  

In veterinary medicine, compassion fatigue can result from the close relationship veterinary professionals share with their patients and clients. Veterinary professionals who must put down terminally ill pets  can easily succumb to compassion fatigue. Staffers who deal with animal cruelty cases may become overwhelmed by the trauma of the animals they are treating. Constant exposure to the financial and emotional struggles that their clients are experiencing can also contribute to compassion fatigue.

Conquering Compassion Fatigue

Overcoming the perils of compassion fatigue is a protective and proactive process. Veterinarians cannot wait until compassion fatigue strikes but must take preemptive steps to ensure morale always remains high. Taking pride in one’s work is an imperative part of this process. Senior staffers should remind junior team members of the good they are doing in the world when they assist wounded animals or put a suffering pet out of its misery. Understanding that compassion fatigue and burnout often go hand in hand is also essential for management personnel.  

Compassion fatigue in veterinary medicine is often experienced by professionals who must oversee euthanasia. Workers who are inexperienced with euthanizing a suffering pet may be grappling with compassion fatigue and burnout in the aftermath. Staffers who bottle up their emotions, constantly pick unexpected fights with coworkers, and refuse to work with management could be experiencing compassion fatigue. Substance abuse is another common sign of compassion fatigue, which is particularly dangerous as the veterinary industry has few national monitoring programs for substance abuse and mental health issues. 

Managers should strive to avoid a culture of denial around substance abuse in order to avoid compassion fatigue. Acknowledging the trauma that workers experience is the first step in preventing a fall into dangerous substance abuse. Ensure that medication is closely monitored and that employees experiencing compassion fatigue are not ignored by their superiors. 

Vicarious Traumatization

It is easy to confuse vicarious traumatization and compassion fatigue. Vicarious traumatization refers to the shift that happens in an individual after getting exposed to traumatic events repeatedly. It is often characterized by a change in a person’s worldview. Individuals who experience it can either become more cynical and fearful, or more appreciative of the things that they have. Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue often develop in tandem. Vicarious Traumatization

Since vicarious traumatization focuses more on the reaction of an individual to a traumatizing experience, their response can be negative, neutral, or positive. It can also change over time, vary from one person to another, and differ based on the length of exposure. Vicarious trauma is common among veterinary staffers who deal with the repeated loss of patients. 

Reacting to Vicarious Trauma

Veterinary professionals who are often exposed to patient trauma and euthanasia stress must embrace reflection to avoid negatively altering their personalities. Writing exercises that focus on what draws an individual into veterinary medicine can be fulfilling remedies to vicarious trauma. Writing can help prevent talking to oneself, a critical symptom of vicarious trauma that managers should be aware of. 

Personal values must always be maintained in the face of vicarious trauma. Managers should ensure veterinary staff are valued in the workplace and reminded of the role they play in saving patient lives. Avoiding workplace apathy and detachment are critical steps in reacting to vicarious trauma as it arises. 

By R. Jacquesmith