Compassion Fatigue in Veterinary Assistants

Most people go into caring professions because they are caring people. Unfortunately, the empathy that leads people to a helping career can make things particularly difficult when faced with the stressors involved. Veterinary technicians and assistants love to comfort and care for animals but unfortunately also have to deal with their suffering and that of their owners. They may also have to help with euthanasia and witness accidental death. These stressors can lead to mental health challenges and burnout if not addressed.

You may have heard the expression, “Put your own oxygen mask on first.” When it comes to caring professions, this is critical. When people first embark on a career caring for others in need, they are energized and motivated to make a difference. Once they realize that it is impossible to save every individual in their care, or even most of them, they may become depressed, numb, cynical or jaded. They may turn to unhealthy eating, substance abuse or other self-medication. This leads to high rates of turnover in fields that can really benefit from experienced professionals able to mentor others. That is one reason why recognizing the symptoms of compassion fatigue and acting to combat it are so important.

What Does Compassion Fatigue Look Like in the Veterinary Profession?

Those suffering from compassion fatigue might experience insomnia, complain excessively about their job, have difficulty concentrating, or stop taking an interest in their personal appearance or hygiene. In the animal care field, sufferers may feel that most people are not concerned about their animals and that they are fighting an uphill battle against an apathetic society. This might be particularly acute in a workplace such as a high-volume municipal shelter where many animals are surrendered or euthanized for lack of space, or a veterinary practice in an area where clients cannot afford much preventative care or treatment for their pets. In many shelters, it falls to the veterinary assistant staff to choose the animals to be euthanized that day. Understandably, being required to take the lives of healthy animals (perhaps the same animals they tenderly cared for the day before) can take a real toll on a person’s mental well-being. Those suffering from compassion fatigue may begin to feel that there is ‘no point’ to their work and may even begin to act callously towards the animals in their care.

How to Prevent and Treat Compassion Fatigue in Veterinary Assistants

The vast majority of veterinary assistants are young women who may not be prioritizing or even thinking about self-care or mental health. Ideally, supervising staff would look out for symptoms that a vet assistant is becoming overwhelmed and be proactive about promoting healthy behaviors, but since most facilities are not able to dedicate staff time to looking out for and preventing compassion fatigue,   employees are mostly on their own. Here are some simple and inexpensive ways that veterinary assistants can care for themselves so that they can continue to do their very important work:

  • Be sure to get adequate sleep.
  • Get some exercise every day.
  • Try yoga or meditation
  • On days off, engage in healthy, rewarding, fun activities, like playing sports or attending a concert or movie.
  • Focus on successes, and don’t take losses as personal failures.

These and other suggestions and resources are available from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

Many animal welfare organizations recognize that this is a very serious problem. It has even led to loss of life in some cases. If you or a friend or co-worker is suffering from compassion fatigue, there are also many online resources and forums hosted by animal welfare organizations who understand exactly the emotional toll that working in this field can take. If professional mental health counseling is available, don’t ever hesitate to take advantage of it.

You may feel that your workplace stress is not as important as other issues that people face, or that people might not take your feelings seriously because they are about animals, but compassion fatigue is not something to be brushed aside. Taking good care of yourself is a critical aspect of working as a veterinary assistant.

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