What is Compassion Fatigue?

by Jan Thomas

Tell a roomful of clients that their pets have a high risk of contracting rabies, and most will understand immediately that their animals could become seriously ill or die without intervention.

Stand in a room with fellow veterinary students, technicians or associates and hear that you’re at high risk of experiencing compassion fatigue, and odds are you’ll notice a few knowing nods, a few shrugs, some blank expressions — and maybe even an irritated, “Well, duh!”

For many, compassion fatigue is an ambiguous term that means something like that gross, angry, burned out, exhausted feeling you get after too many hard days, too many difficult clients, too many unwinnable cases and too many euthanasias. But misunderstanding the diagnosis — and make no mistake, compassion fatigue is a serious issue with health-related consequences — may be one of the reasons this potentially debilitating condition is becoming increasingly prevalent in the animal medical profession.

Compassion fatigue is the experience of “being traumatized by the work you do with [those] who are sad and suffering, whether it be with humans or other kinds of animals,” says Charles Figley, PhD, professor of disaster mental health at Tulane University’s School of Social Work and coauthor of Compassion Fatigue in the Animal Care Community. “It’s the burden of caring. It’s the psychosocial sadness we take with us. It’s the stress of dispensing compassion.”

Though some use the terms interchangeably, many experts say compassion fatigue is more aligned with post-traumatic stress than burnout.

“Burnout is general dissatisfaction with your work environment. Suffering and sad people may be a component, but burnout is generally because of supervisors, pay and poor working conditions — all of which can be remedied by getting another job,” Figley says.

The residual effects of intense medical experiences such as euthanasia aren’t so easily solved.

“When people are involved in euthanasia, they can experience primary or secondary stress depending on their perspective,” says Tracy Zaparanick, PhD, coauthor of Nonhuman-Animal Care Compassion Fatigue: Training as Treatment and a co-researcher on two compassion fatigue studies. “If they see themselves as causing the death, that would capture the essence of primary stress. If they don’t see themselves in that role, but instead see themselves as witnesses to death, that could constitute secondary stress.”

Zaparanick says the frequency with which veterinary professionals experience death is important when defining this version of compassion fatigue.

“One estimate is that veterinarians experience death at five times the rate as human care providers,” she says. “It’s experienced so prolifically that people often are ill-equipped to do the job. They walk away daily with unresolved grief.”

How do you know if you, or someone else, is experiencing compassion fatigue? Click here to learn how to spot compassion fatigue warning signs and how to treat compassion fatigue if you have it already.

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