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The Underlying Prevalence of Compassion Fatigue

By Rosella Stewart

The concept of compassion fatigue has been an infrequent topic of discussion in recent years. Health care staff and workers have tried bringing to light the reality of this condition into public awareness in the after­math of the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw many essential workers dealing with the ex­tremely high-stress mental and emotional de­mands of work nearly around the clock.

Compassion fatigue is the body’s psycho­logical, emotional, and sometimes very phys­ical response to experiences of trauma and stress. It is an emotional exhaustiveness that many workers in these high-intensity jobs ex­perience at times in their careers. Jobs that require workers to form deeper intrapersonal connections with clients, such as therapists, at-home caregivers, veterinarians, and first responders are also more likely to lead to compassion fatigue in workers. Roles that require the care of others can impact caregiv­ers’ conditions and lead to extreme tiredness or desperation within these secondary stress reactions.

Compassion fatigue is often described as feeling what its name suggests: that one’s sense of compassion has run out. It exhibits similar symptoms to burnout, and is thus of­ten mistaken as such. Burnout is a cumulative reactive response, in which stress and fatigue build up over a period of time, whereas com­passion fatigue may be in response to a sin­gular event or time of great anxiety.

Common signs include apathy, a sense of bottling up of emotions, isolation, difficulty concentrating, voicing excessive complaints about work, nightmares, and flashbacks.

The veterinary field is no stranger to the struggles of compassion fatigue when deal­ing with clients and caring for pets, who are viewed practically as members of the fami­ly. Veterinary staff are the sole recipients of whatever clients may feel in regards to their pets’ care and recovery.

Veterinarians currently have one of the highest suicide rates the in US of any profes­sion. This is the direct result of the common­ality of compassion fatigue in the field, high debt to income ratio, and burnout.

When speaking with the source of this ar­ticle, who chooses to remain anonymous, on what clients should understand about the re­ality of compassion fatigue, the answer was simple: realize that veterinarians and health­care workers enter their fields out of a desire to help others. They have entered these fields to offer care to those who need it. The most difficult aspect of the job is receiving blame or accusations from clients who are dis­pleased with the results of the job, when it is often entirely out of the veterinarian’s hands.

Compassion fatigue depends on empathy. It is the kind, gentle, and protective nature that is necessary to care for another that opens the door to this type of stress reaction. The vulnerability required to offer the best care is also the vulnerability that leaves workers at risk.

When asked how common compassion fa­tigue has been throughout their career, the source of this article stated that every staff member they had interacted with over the course of their career exhibited at least one symptom of compassion fatigue.

Their advice to others in positions such as theirs that put them at risk of compassion fa­tigue is to own up to any mistakes and take accountability for their actions. We are all hu­man and mistakes happen from time to time. Blaming oneself for not knowing everything is not a fix for dealing with compassion fa­tigue. Be gentle with yourself if you are ex­hibiting any symptoms and take the neces­sary time to recover.

Equally important is knowing your limita­tions and abilities and being upfront about them when it comes to situations that may be too stress-inducing or traumatizing.

To better support our workers who may be exhibiting signs of compassion fatigue, em­ployee assistant programs housed at clinics and hospitals may offer guidance and discuss concerns with staff. Zero-tolerance policies at places of work can aim to limit exposure to possibly traumatizing behaviors. These practices are not common in many places of employment, so finding support elsewhere during times of possible compassion fatigue is crucial to recovery


This condition is one that completely dis­rupts any semblance of a work/life balance. Stress at work is a normal part of daily life, but that stress should never follow you home and leave you fearful or at-risk. Once work stress has crossed that threshold, begin look­ing for ways to seek support and understand that this is a common and accepted part of the role. Though it is not nearly addressed as often as it should, compassion fatigue is something to be aware of.

Keeping compassion in mind while interact­ing with staff members from any high-stress profession is an important step in creating a safer workplace for our social caregivers.

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