This week another young veterinarian took her own life. I did not know this young woman, but she has been on my mind all week. I watched Dr. Andy Roark’s emotional Facebook live post and shared with him his grief, and the helplessness and hopelessness that follows the loss of another vibrant veterinarian to suicide. Our industry is a close-knit group – for better or worse – and when we lose one of our own, it affects us all.
All week I’ve had this fire in my stomach that it’s not enough. We’re not doing enough. Talking about suicide in veterinary medicine isn’t enough; we’ve been discussing the high rate of suicide amongst veterinarians for years but what are we actively doing in our own clinics and for our own teams? What can we do when a member of our team reaches out for help? Are we encouraging them to do so or are we setting an example by carrying on regardless through our own suffering? Are we willing just to accept this epidemic as commonplace in our line of work? I can’t help but feel we need to do more.
As a practice manager or practice owner, our people are our business and the backbone of any practice. As such, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves and our team about compassion fatigue and burnout and how to overcome them before it becomes too great a burden to bear.
Meet the Elephants in the Room: Compassion Fatigue v. Burnout
Compassion fatigue and burnout are not the same. However, both can appear in the workplace and have devastating effects on the team.
Burnout is when an individual has reached a point of loss of physical or emotional strength in relation to frequent high levels of stress. A person going through burnout at work may develop feelings of ineffectiveness, frustration and lack of motivation in regards to their work. These feelings may ultimately reduce their efficacy and create a sense of disengagement in the workplace. Burnout can lead to compassion fatigue over time if the individual does not find ways to care for oneself.
Managers take note: we are not immune to burnout in our profession. The demands on us are high and we carry a high emotional workload. We must find ways to identify and acknowledge those moments when we reach maximum capacity. Think your team doesn’t notice? They do. If you have been experiencing burnout or a lackluster approach to your work, please seek the help of mentors and friends. Believe me, I’ve been there and I continue to work through it. You are not alone – you can, and will, find your spark again.
Compassion fatigue is a condition mostly experienced by those in a caregiving profession such as veterinary medicine, where an individual is exposed to trauma and traumatic situations repeatedly during their everyday work. The toll on the caregiver is characterized by feelings of depression, the inability to “care” anymore, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, a persistent negative attitude and/or the inability to experience pleasure in their work or personal life. Compassion fatigue sufferers are often unable to regulate their reaction to stress. If left untreated, compassion fatigue can lead to suicidal thoughts or actions or harm to others.
What can I do?
Start talking. Educate your team on compassion fatigue and burnout. Let them know that feeling of dread at coming into work every morning for the past month shouldn’t be ignored as it could be a sign of something bigger. Those that work long days and extra shifts need to have balance. The psychological effects of patient death and difficult outcomes are very real and comments like “just one of those days” or “it’s just that time of year” or “I feel like Dr. Death today” shouldn’t be laughed off or disregarded. Over-reactions to stress or stressful situations shouldn’t be dismissed as “Susie’s just having a bad day”. We need to talk to each other, have regular team meetings, one-on-one meetings and extend a listening ear.
The practice manager wears many hats, among them is counselor and coach, and we too have to be aware of the toll that our role in the practice can take on us. We are aware of the “temperature” of our team. We know that this is Susie’s third “bad day” in a row. We know when Steve is struggling with tardiness and seems off kilter when he gets to work. We feel their losses just as we feel their successes. We can’t brush these moments off, but we have to know the line where taking care of our team falls out of our scope of practice. Most of us are not therapists or trauma professionals, and although there is education out there to gain understanding of these issues in the workplace, there is a limit to our ability to help when it comes to helping someone suffering through a serious condition like compassion fatigue.
Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)
At the end of last year, the idea of doing more on this topic was bugging me. After much research on the shocking lack of mental health benefits available in traditional health insurance plans offered in our benefits package, I was feeling pretty hopeless. However, after some digging, I was pleased to discover that there is help out there in the form of EAPs. EAPs such as American Behavioral or WorkLifeMatters from the Guardian Life Insurance Group offer confidential counseling services to employees for work-related concerns, family issues, as well as financial and legal counseling. An employer can elect to have a number of sessions available per employee at no cost to them and relatively little cost to the employer. After open enrollment this year, our EAP has given me the ability to offer my team a valuable tool to help them take care of their own mental wellbeing.
There are many options out there for mental health support services in your local community. The US Department of Human and Health Services offers a search based on your zip code to locate mental health resources in your area. Post a link to this website in your break room so that employees can access help anonymously. If any of your employees are students, encourage them to take advantage of student counseling services that may be available to them.
Use team meetings as a forum to normalize feelings of hopelessness, stress, depression and mental and physical exhaustion. As leaders, veterinarians and managers have difficulty showing that they are susceptible to stress, burnout and compassion fatigue. They feel that they need to soldier on and not show signs of their vulnerability and perhaps see burnout or fatigue as weakness.
Dear veterinarians and managers, I encourage you to share your stories. You are the leaders of this profession and it falls on you to set the example of vulnerability and self-care. Be bold: let the team know that they’re not the only ones suffering. It can make the world of difference and open the door to empowering them to identify their struggles, seek help, and begin the path to healing.
This profession is the calling of our veterinarians and staff and practice managers alike. It takes a certain soul to take on this work. By helping our team (and ourselves) find ways to renew and replenish our cups, they have the ability to combat the pressures of their work and continue to draw from the well of themselves so that their calling can continue for years to come.
Joanne Graham, CVPM