Compassion fatigue is fatigue brought on by the act of caring for and about others over a long period of time. The phenomenon has been studied extensively in medical providers, first responders, and mental health professionals, since these are the fields that most often come to mind when we think about professionally caring for others.
While being well aware of this issue for human healthcare providers, we have only recently begun to acknowledge and address the mental health crisis that is occurring amongst veterinarians and staff. According to recent research, 1 in 6 veterinarians have contemplated suicide at some point in their careers. They are more likely than their counterparts in human medicine to contemplate suicide, and they are more likely to experience burn out and compassion fatigue in general than human physicians as well.
Veterinarians and staff are tasked with caring not only about the animals in their care, but about their human clients that who are emotionally attached to these animals. They work long hours and make difficult and emotionally charged decisions daily. They complete four years of veterinary medical school that is as least as intense and demanding as four years of human medical school with similar student debt concerns. They experience patient death and encounter grief in much greater numbers than human physicians because of their patients’ generally shorter life expectancies. One veterinarian in practice for 20 years may treat an animal from birth to death.
When considering euthanasia (recommending that an animal be “put to sleep”), the veterinarian must not only consider the medical factors in such a decision, but he/she must also cope with the moral, psychological, and emotional impact of the decision on the animal, the client, the staff, and the veterinarian themselves. While certainly feeling empathy and compassion for their human clients, many recent graduates of veterinary school report that they feel ill equipped to respond to the client’s emotional state following a euthanasia procedure.
The research also suggests that veterinarians also experience moral stress at a higher rate than human medicine physicians. Moral stress occurs when one is aware of the right thing to do, but feels unable to do it based upon circumstances outside their control. A prime example of a morally stressful situation in veterinary medicine is being required to euthanize healthy animals in a shelter environment due to population control. If you’re a vet, you likely went to school to preserve animal life and promote animal welfare. Therefore, the act of euthanizing a healthy animal is antithetical to your beliefs and values as a professional and a human being. It probably comes as no surprise then that repeatedly having to euthanize healthy animals is a common reason that shelter veterinarians and staff report for experiencing burn out and ultimately quitting their jobs.
A recent study by the American Veterinary Medical Association and Merck Animal Health found that veterinarians and vet staff also report the following as common and problematic stressors in the workplace:
- People are concerned about the recent shortage in new veterinary graduates.
- Staff wellbeing is generally lower than veterinary wellbeing.
- The percentage of veterinarians and staff reporting serious psychological distress increased from 2019-2021, in large part due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing issues and added additional stressors since veterinary practices were considered essential services. Employees were at a higher risk of exposure because of their interactions with clients and animals. Many practices instituted social distancing policies requiring clients to stay in their cars during appointments and communicate over the phone regarding diagnoses and treatment, which sometimes strained client-practice relationships, especially in emergency cases and euthanasia situations.
In sum, the risk for compassion fatigue and burnout in veterinary medicine is high. Veterinarians and staff have been an underserved population in the mental health field. Vet med students, especially, have reported they don’t feel comfortable discussing anxiety, depression, or stress with colleagues and professors. They describe a culture of “mental toughness.” They fear being judged as “weak” or not able to perform their jobs. A similar stigma is found among human medicine students and professionals.
So, how do we begin to address the mental health concerns inherent in the practice of veterinary medicine?
A partnership between the College of Veterinary Medicine and the College of Social Work at The University of Tennessee Knoxville has created the relatively new field of Veterinary Social Work. Veterinary Social Work seeks to “attend to the human needs at the intersection of veterinary and social work practice.” The four areas of veterinary social work are:
- Compassion Fatigue and Conflict Management
- Animal Assisted Interventions
- The Link Between Human and Animal Violence and
- Animal Related Grief and Bereavement
Veterinary Social Workers (VSWs) work within veterinary and animal care settings to provide support to the veterinary staff and clients regarding workplace-related mental health concerns, compassion fatigue, and grief and bereavement. They provide the care for humans so that veterinarians can focus on what they are trained to do- provide the best care for animals.
Other organizations working to address the mental health crisis and provide emotional support for veterinarians and staff include:
Pathos Counseling offers individual counseling to veterinarians, staff, and clients who are struggling with compassion fatigue, burnout, workplace related stress, and grief.
Multi-session interactive workshops for veterinary teams, addressing veterinary staff mental health and wellbeing are in production and will be available soon.
Please reach out if you are struggling. You are not alone!
Ayl, K. (2013). When Helping Hurts: Compassion Fatigue in the Veterinary Profession. American Animal Hospital Association Press. Lakewood, CO.
Veterinary Mental Health and Wellbeing and How to Improve Them. (January, 2022). Merck Animal Health and Wellbeing Study III. Retrieved from: https://www.merck-animal-health-usa.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2022/02/2021-PSV-Veterinary-Wellbeing-Presentation_V2.pdf
Veterinary Social Work. Retrieved from: https://vetsocialwork.utk.edu/