Compassion fatigue is not a new topic in veterinary medicine; it has been talked about before. Yet how many of us today would admit that we suffer from compassion fatigue, and/or that we see the effects on our team?
First, we must understand what it is.
It is likely that we are all familiar with the term “burnout”. It is important to determine whether you are looking at compassion fatigue or burnout in order to apply the correct treatment. When these two terms are compared in human medicine, we find that burnout results from the stresses that come from the work environment, whereas compassion fatigue evolves from the relationship between the health professional and the patient, and client, in our case.
Expanding that comparison, you could also deduce that burnout is more associated with WHERE you work; if you leave the job, you leave behind the work environment and the burnout (or at least part of it). BUT, compassion fatigue is more associated with the work you DO, and it follows you wherever you go, as long as you are a caregiver.
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Experts agree that the more you know about compassion fatigue, the better prepared you are to recognize it and cope with its effects. Compassion is defined as a deep awareness of the suffering of another, coupled with the wish to relieve it (Figley & Roop, 2006. Fatigue is defined as the mental weariness resulting from exertion that is associated with attending to the emotional and physical pain of others (Figley & Roop, 2006). Combined together, compassion fatigue has been called the “hurt of the heart” (Ogilvie 2006), something all of us in the veterinary profession are susceptible to. Many of us today suffer from this condition.
Let’s look at symptoms of compassion fatigue in particular: