An Epiphany; Burnout versus Compassion Fatigue

April 23, 2016

An Epiphany

I finally got it! I finally found a way to identify the difference between burnout and compassion fatigue.

Since 2001, I have attended classes on the subjects. It wasn’t until 2016 that I actually wrapped my head around the difference!

Please allow me to share my examples, hoping it will help others down their path of veterinary medicine.

Through the years, I have spoken with many veterinary team members about their experiences with burnout. They have talked about their desire to meet their highest potential and the feeling of spinning their wheels. Others have opened their hearts to me, expressing the despair and anxious feelings they have (had) when working in a veterinary hospital.

Now, I can see and offer examples of the two. This is my attempt in helping others to determine where they may fit; either burned out or experiencing compassion fatigue.

Burnout is related to the work environment, the place in which you work, or the circumstances around your career.

As an example, you may dread going to work because the team is short staffed (working over-time), communication is poor or appropriate systems are not in place to support a satisfactory work environment.

While in the state of burnout if efficient team members were hired (average hours being worked), communication was improved (possibly through engaged team meetings) and systems were implemented to improve the hospital’s culture, then your career can get back on track and there could be more job satisfaction and joy in your work days. This reflects your understanding and feelings around leadership and management.

Compassion Fatigue is related to the trauma experienced in the care we provide.

As examples, a veterinary team member may not be able to endure another day with a sick and dying kitten or the anxiety of a pet parent coping with a pet with cancer, or the thought of having to discuss an economic euthanasia with a client. Regardless of the work environment, the trauma is constant to the veterinary team member that is unable to cope with the constant barrage of trauma.

In this case, understanding the compassion fatigue is related to the work we do. Identifying the fatigue and learning how to cope and maintain perspective for the daily trauma is the only way to get through the day. This is directly linked to the thoughts and perceptions we have about the dying kitten, pets with cancer, and economic euthanasia creating our daily feelings.

For me, I finally SEE the difference between the two!

An epiphany, on my part. An AaHA moment!

Now, what to do with the information?

The first step is to objectively identify how you feel about your daily duties and tasks, your state of mind and your sense of wellbeing while working in a veterinary hospital. Easier said than done!

What can a team member do when they determine they are in the midst of burnout or compassion fatigue?

  • Seek help.
  • Speak with your manager.
  • Find support within your veterinary hospital or beyond.
  • Have a heart-to-heart conversation with someone who will be empathetic and supportive. Know there are people in your sphere of influence who have experienced similar challenges and learned to overcome the obstacles.
  • Seeking help, unloading your frustrations and pain will help in finding a light, a new way of looking at your dilemma or circumstances.

And it may be just saying, “I need help in managing this (burnout/fatigue).”

Yours in Team Wellness,
Rebecca Rose, CVT

* Burnout, compassion fatigue, depression—what’s the difference?
* Fighting Compassion Fatigue In The Veterinary Industry. With compassion fatigue, we reach a point where we care too much, or care too little. By Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, PHR.