The first appointments of the day have arrived. Buffy the “Tech Slayer” Shih Tzu is in room one, Clyde the Siamese cat hides under the chair in room two and Maverick the 100-lb Mastiff is still in the process of being dragged through the front door by his owner. The team stands in the back hallway, takes a deep breath and smiles before opening the exam room door. So it begins, another day of stress for both man and beast alike…
Members of the veterinary team are experts at dealing with every medical condition entering the front door. In addition to medical training, the team also has expertise in self-defense (trying to avoid being bit), wrestling (restraining an “active” pet) and dodge ball (ok, “ball” is a nice way of saying urine, feces and anal glands squirting from a frantic pet). Dealing with everything from medical emergencies and squirting fluids to reluctant dogs and stressed-out cats is all in a day’s work. However, the constant exposure to pets under stress takes its toll on the team, often causing compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue is an emotional side effect of working with pets in distress and suffering. Those three pets coming in on this particular day are suffering from fear, anxiety and stress, and the team is vulnerable to the pressure.
Compassion fatigue is characterized by physical and emotional exhaustion from wanting to care for or help pets in need. Some may call it the high cost of caring, or burnout. No matter what label you give it, team members get worn down dealing with pets who are suffering—including pets suffering from stress. The result can be employees quitting their jobs, or worse.
The time is now for implementing a plan to improve pets’ veterinary experiences and reduce the compassion fatigue experienced by the team. For starters, it is essential to discuss compassion fatigue with your team. The AVMA has a tool to help team members measure the effects that helping others has on themselves.1 And although developed for use by human health care providers, the Professional Quality of Life (ProQOL) assessment is a starting point for discussing the workplace environment and mental wellbeing.
Some recommended action steps for dealing with compassion fatigue include:
- Make time for yourself: Exercise, hobbies, leisure activities, unplug from technology
- Focus on your health: Meal breaks, healthy diet, adequate sleep
- Create a support system
- Practice mindfulness and meditation
- Set boundaries: Know when to say “no”
- Make work an enjoyable place
Make work an enjoyable place? Is that even possible, given all that is happening in today’s workplace—long hours, short-staffed, angry clients and challenging patient interactions? Of all the ideas that come to mind for making the workplace enjoyable, think about one potential area for improvement: creating a relaxed, low-stress experience for the pets.
Why focus on the pets? Isn’t this about the team’s stressors? Imagine the team’s relief when Buffy is no longer on the attack, when Clyde is lounging on the table and purring, or when Maverick trots into the building on his own. Removing that sense of dread one has when faced with the daily struggle of dealing with stressed-out patients is a significant step in making the workplace enjoyable and in fighting compassion fatigue.
How does one create a low-stress veterinary experience for the pets? Tap into these programs to get started:
- Cat Friendly Practice® Program2
- Fear Free® for veterinary professionals3
- Low Stress Handling® University4
These resources provide the tools and team training programs for creating a better veterinary experience for pets. Initiating a change to the way things “have always been done” in the veterinary hospital will take some time because it is a cultural change. The team is fundamentally changing how they interact with pets, clients and even with each other.
Used properly, the techniques presented in the different programs mentioned above can help improve patient care, reduce client churn and improve the workplace environment for the team. For example, many Fear Free Certified Practices notice a distinct change in dynamics in the exam room when the pet is not exhibiting fear, anxiety or stress. Cat Friendly Practices notice a positive effect on both clients and their cats—including an increase in feline exams and feline dentistry. Work is more enjoyable when the veterinary team can do what they love: provide care to pets.
Practices making the change experience many positive results (as stated on their websites and published white papers) including:
- Increased services per invoice
- Increased percentage of patients with exam visits (including progress exams)
- Increased feline exam visits
- Improved client bonding rates
- Increased forward-booking appointments
- Improved client compliance
- Reduced injuries sustained by team members
- Improved team morale
Kathryn Primm, DVM, CVPM of Applebrook Animal Hospital, Ooltewah, TN, knows first-hand the long-term effect of the Fear Free program on her and her team. “I saw half a dozen cats today, and absolutely none of them hissed at me,” she said. “The biggest tip I have is to train your whole team. Every point of contact must be singing the same song. It has changed my practice and my life.”
Implementing a change in the pet’s experience transforms the team’s daily interactions with pets, clients and colleagues. Instead of dreading that next exam room, team members can have the satisfaction of performing a comprehensive exam on a calm pet. They can have the satisfaction of engaging in a conversation with a client who can listen and discuss options (instead of hurrying so they can get the upset pet back home). They experience a calmer workplace environment. They experience compassion satisfaction.
Do not underestimate the importance of those daily interactions. According to a survey on compassion fatigue, veterinary technicians report that “helping animals, working as a team, and working with grateful clients helped protect them from compassion fatigue.”5 This is what compassion satisfaction sounds like—helping pets, working together.
Clients notice and value the change. Practices experience a better team environment. Potential new hires can sense a difference in the practice culture. Job seekers search for these certified practices because they value the difference. This is the face of a workplace environment that enhances the quality of life of both pets and people.
Many factors cause stress in the veterinary hospital. While we can’t prevent the emergency hit-by-car or the sudden passing of a pet, we can have a strategic plan to lower the fear, anxiety and stress experienced by pets. This, in turn, improves the veterinary experience for clients and veterinary teams.
According to Temple Grandin, “Reducing fear will improve both the welfare and life of your pet.”
Isn’t this why people enter the veterinary profession, to improve the lives of pets and people? Then why not improve the veterinary experience by reducing fear, anxiety and stress in pets, and give our veterinary teams the gift of compassion satisfaction? +
- Assess your wellbeing. AVMA. https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/wellbeing/assess-your-wellbeing
- Cat Friendly Practice® Program. AAFP. https://catvets.com/cfp/veterinary-professionals
- Fear Free® for veterinary professionals. Fear Free Pets. https://fearfreepets.com/veterinary-professionals/
- Low Stress Handling® University. Low Stress Handling. https://lowstresshandling.com/
- Compassion Fatigue and Compassion Satisfaction. NC State Veterinary Medicine. https://cvm.ncsu.edu/human-resources/employee-resources/compassion/