Veterinary medicine depends on the correct diagnosis of an animal’s condition. Once an animal’s problem is identified, the proper treatment or prevention can begin. The same is true of diagnosing compassion fatigue and burnout in veterinary professionals. They are two different conditions, although a person can experience both at the same time. The treatment and/or prevention of each depend on whether the person is experiencing compassion fatigue or burnout, or both.
First we’ll look at the more commonly used term, burnout. Interestingly enough, just because the word is used more often does not mean it is more prevalent than compassion fatigue. In fact, the opposite is likely true. Several definitions link burnout to the work environment:
“Burnout is a psychological term for the experience of long-term exhaustion and diminished interest, especially in one’s career.” ~Patricia Smith, Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project
“Burnout is a result of frustration, powerlessness, and inability to achieve work goals.” ~ Charles R. Figley
Factors that lead to burnout in the work environment can include an undesirable schedule, low pay, strained team dynamics, inadequate supervision and/or inept management, just to name a few. In burnout, the factors are frequently outside or external to the team member, and improvement typically involves resolving issues with others. This exploration of burnout also leads to the conclusion that if you leave your job in that particular facility, it is possible to leave behind the burnout and find a more desirable work environment.
Now let’s turn our attention to compassion fatigue. This is a much more personal or internal condition, and only we have the power to heal ourselves. It has been called “the cost of caring” by Charles R. Figley, which means the psychological burden we bear by helping others in need. For us, this includes the animal patient and their family.
“Burnout results from stresses that arise from the clinician’s interaction with the work environment …while compassion fatigue evolves specifically from the relationship between the clinician and the patient.” ~ Kearney et. al., 2009
In contrast, compassion fatigue is about the work we DO, rather than WHERE we work. If you stay in a care giving profession, compassion fatigue will follow with you. This is one of the many reasons why it’s necessary to heal compassion fatigue, in order to prevent attrition from the veterinary profession. As mentioned you can have compassion fatigue and burnout at the same time. You may recognize that the work environment is affecting you, so you change jobs. But then you become aware that things are not all better inside you—because compassion fatigue still lingers. Before you can treat and heal yourself, the diagnosis is imperative. Next we look toward healing compassion fatigue and burnout.
© Katherine Dobbs 2010
If you’d like to reprint this article please contact us.