Compassion fatigue



When having high empathy and a passion for your work becomes a drawback. By Megan Crawford

Despite what Gerald Durrell would have us believe, veterinary practice is no country idyll. In fact, a 2011 survey demonstrated that veterinarians suffer from higher levels of depression, anxiety, burnout and stress than the general population. Long hours of work are a major factor; another is compassion fatigue: if you deal with trauma for long enough, it’s likely to take its toll.

What is compassion fatigue?

A condition by no means unique to people working in veterinary practice and animal welfare, compassion fatigue is commonly experienced by those who work in a caring role. In particular, such individuals tend to be exposed to heart-wrenching, emotional challenges with some degree of frequency.

Former vet nurse Dr Vanessa Rohlf is a psychologist specialising in the psychology of animal-human interaction and regularly conducts seminars about compassion fatigue. Dr Rohlf explains compassion fatigue has two components. “The first is secondary trauma,” she says. “The second part is burnout. Burnout is associated with that feeling of exhaustion from the ongoing demands of your work and workplace stresses.”

The cause

In an animal-caregiving context, the people most suspectible to compassion fatigue include veterinarians and vet nurses, foster carers, animal rescue workers and animal shelter staff. Paradoxically, it’s the very same factors that attracted them to their vocation that are likely to put them at risk.

“One of the things we know is that a lot of people who work in veterinary practice tend to be high in perfectionism,” Dr Rohlf says. “Perfectionism can be great—it’s what got them through vet school in the first place, and it’s linked to academic and career success and conscientiousness.

“The downside is that people can be quite critical of themselves. Also, striving for perfection in this area is really difficult—you’re aiming for something you can never reach. Couple that with the fact that the people who are drawn to the job have high empathy and compassion for people and animals and it means the ones who are really good at their job are most vulnerable.”

Dr Michael O’Donoghue, owner of People & Pets (which provides vet locum services as well as pet loss support), and a member of the small animals committee of the Australian Veterinary Assocation, describes compassion fatigue almost as an occupational hazard. “Vets need to be compassionate in dealing with their clients, but there is a limit to their skills and the time that they have,” he says.

“People tell vets all kinds of personal things and about how attached they are. To be a vet you have to be an empathetic, really caring person who loves animals to start with. It’s a particular kind of person who’s attracted to this job. Then taking on endless cases, well, it overwhelms people and you can’t deal with everything. It all takes a toll.

The symptoms

These are associated with secondary trauma and mimic the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. “It’s like you are taking on the trauma of the other,” Dr Rohlf says.

“There are avoidance symptoms, so you might avoid certain places, people, situations or events associated with the traumatic event. Then there are intrusive symptoms, like daytime memories associated with the event. For instance, you may not be able to get an animal’s face out of your mind, or you might have nightmares. Then there are symptoms associated with anxiety—like hyper arousal, being jumpy and feeling on guard, trouble sleeping and irritability.

The symptoms of burnout include feeling overwhelmed, worn out and unproductive, which may lead, in turn, to cynicism. “It’s that feeling of ‘what’s the point’, you’re not making a difference anymore,” Dr Rohlf says.

Loss of empathy, negativity, apathy, headaches and gastrointestinal upsets, feelings of powerlessness, anger, depression and addictive or compulsive behaviours may be other giveaways. (If animal workers think they may be suffering from compassion fatigue, there is a free online test available, called the Professional Quality of Life Scale, at


The RSPCA has identified a range of tools to help its employees avoid compassion fatigue, focusing on self-assessment, self-awareness and self-care. Among other things, it urges its employees to take time out daily, put themselves first, set boundaries, schedule time for relaxation and play, establish work-life balance, laugh, learn breathing techniques and prioritise the fundamentals of self-care—a good diet, adequate exercise and sleep.

Dr O’Donoghue has his own strategies for avoiding compassion fatigue. For starters, he works part-time, which helps him to feel refreshed. “My family is very important to me,” he says. “I do a lot of cycling; it’s a great stress release. Perspective and seeing a bigger purpose really helps. I have a vision of improving pet loss and grief and try to stay focused on that. It’s important to have that and avoid being bogged down by each individual case.”


While compassion fatigue is common, it does not mean your career is over. “It doesn’t mean that you’re a failure, and it doesn’t have to mean the end of your job,” Dr Rohlf says.

“There are things you can do on an individual level and things you can do on a workplace level. The most important thing you can do for yourself is look after yourself. People in this profession put others before themselves quite a lot. So, make sure you schedule self-care. People are great at scheduling appointments for doctors, but they tend not to schedule in activities that relax and restore them.”

Connections with others is critical. “Interestingly, connecting with animals is really important,” Dr Rohlf says. “It could be someone’s own animal or animals in a workplace. It’s a good anchor to the present moment—if you’re worrying, sitting down and playing with your pet is a great way to break ruminating thoughts.”

Dr Rohlf has found that lack of support from management is a big risk factor when it comes to compassion fatigue. “Having an open-door policy and knowing that compassion fatigue is a workplace hazard, just like dog bites and cat scratches, and knowing that it’s okay to talk about it are really important,” he says.

“Also, management need to be flexible, say, around work hours or if someone needs to take some time off—being okay with that or proactively [checking in] is important too.”


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