Compassion fatigue and burnout—everyone is talking about it. Try picking up any veterinary publication or attending any conference without seeing this subject appear at least once. There is a reason the subject is everywhere—it’s because they are real and our colleagues are suffering.
I wish to continue the conversation based on recent experiences. We’ve all seen the stats and certainly agree they are alarming. I do not claim to be an expert in these matters, but I have made the commitment to learn about it so that I can help my team and peers stay rooted in the passion that first brought them to the profession that they love. Veterinary professionals are kind, compassionate, and selfless people. It’s a double-edged sword when that selflessness turns into fatigue and anxiety from pushing too hard, too long without enough self-care.
I recently participated in a six-week online course called Compassion Fatigue RX. Hosted by Julie Squires, certified compassion fatigue specialist and certified life coach, this course was part of her efforts to help individuals and teams thrive in the midst of challenging and stressful work environments.
I found this course to be an incredibly helpful and enlightening experience that I believe more veterinary professionals need to participate in. Not only did I learn many new tools for my “self-care toolbox,” but I also connected with others in the field. This expanded network will be a lasting connection, and I’m grateful that we were brought together.
To help you learn more about how this course can help you and your team, I interviewed Julie. Here’s what she had to say:
Marshall: Julie, you have worked in the veterinary profession for a long time, beginning as a veterinary assistant and later as a practice manager. You also spent about a decade working for a large industry partner. What prompted you to make such a significant career shift to coaching and why now?
Julie: I’ve worked in the field of veterinary medicine for over 20 years now, and while working in a practice I saw the effects that this work can have on people emotionally, physically, and psychologically. However, I didn’t realize it was pervasive until I went into industry sales and became exposed to hundreds of veterinary practices all over the country. I quickly realized that there is a dark side to all “helping professions.” When all your energy is outward focused, it doesn’t take long before you feel exhausted, drained, burned out, angry, and even resentful. Then I started to hear about veterinarians that I knew who had committed suicide.
About five years ago I started feeling a deep unrest within myself. I was working for a great company with great people, but I knew I was meant to do much more. The suicides were always on my mind as well as the overall mental health of the profession. They say “the universe will do for you what you cannot do for yourself.” I got laid off from my job. In an instant I knew what I was going to do. I was going to become trained in compassion fatigue and spend my energy serving the veterinary profession to not only support their mental health and wellbeing but to improve it drastically.
Marshall: As a student in Compassion Fatigue Rx, I learned that circumstances yield thoughts, which yield feelings, which yield an action and ultimately a result. Do you find that most people experiencing compassion fatigue are on a negative path of thoughts and feelings? Why do we find it so difficult to turn that around?
Julie: Our brains are designed for negativity. Negative thoughts mean more; that’s essentially what the negativity bias is. We’ve evolved that way because that is what has kept us safe, to look out for danger. While that worked well when we lived in caves, that’s no longer serving us in modern times but our brains haven’t caught up yet. I teach people where their feelings come from (negative and positive). They come from our thoughts about circumstances. To me, compassion fatigue is mainly a thought problem. It’s how we are thinking about things. What we are making things mean about us and others. And we’ve thought this way our entire lives, so until someone shows us another way, we essentially get stuck. I’m here to teach how to get unstuck and honestly, I can’t think of anything that’s more important.
Marshall: In the course, you teach lessons in stress management. One of my stress management techniques is remembering to insert a space between a stimulus and my response. That space is my opportunity to be in control of my thoughts and subsequent feelings about the stimulus. Can you share two tips to help veterinary professionals manage stress in their busy and often chaotic day?
Julie: I’m a big proponent of journaling. I have most of my coaching clients journal, and they always come back and tell me how helpful it is to just dump out your brain on paper. We get so caught up in the stories our brain creates and the incessant thoughts it produces that we lose sight of who we are (hint: you are not your thoughts). Journaling helps to gain perspective because it allows you to be witness to your thinking. Then you can start to see what is true and what is not.
Secondly, I recommend meditation. I think of it as coming home to ourselves. Many think they can’t meditate because they can’t quiet their mind. Exactly! None of us can. Meditation is about focusing the mind on something whether that is the breath (inhale: exhale) or a word or phrase (mantra). I think of the mind like a dog—you have to give it a job for it to be happy. I can tell you this: The research behind meditation is quite robust and in an all-too-stimulating world. It’s the perfect antidote. It’s an ideal way to start your day as well as to come back to yourself throughout a busy day by just taking a moment or two to close your eyes and focus on a few breaths.
I want to give each of you a big pat on the back for the good that you do every day. Congratulations are in order to celebrate the compassion and good health you provide to pets and their families. They need us; what a privilege it is to serve them. Throughout it all, though, we must remember what our boundaries are and take time for ourselves. You, too, deserve compassion and good health in your life. Whatever that looks like for you, today is your day to do something kind for yourself and make a regular habit of it. Whether that is signing up for the next session of Compassion Fatigue RX (it starts in February) or instituting something else, I am proud of you for being there for your patients and especially for yourself.