The ‘Elephant in the Room’
Every year employers and governments spend millions developing and implementing training and strategies to help keep staff and customers physically safe in the workplace. They also spend millions on sick pay where staff are off with stress or other mental health related issues, many of which can be directly attributed to the work they do. But instead of addressing this, it is largely ignored or given very little priority. In fact, in some areas it’s not spoken about at all as if acknowledging the fact that the work itself could be damaging to an employee’s mental health would be admitting some sort of liability!
This is the ‘elephant in the room’ and it’s time to acknowledge its presence, examine and treat it.
What is it about the veterinary profession that makes this the case? Vets do report high levels of stress and there are many theories about the causes which include, poor workplace relationships, career concerns, issues with clients and unrealistic expectations. Rosie Allister, chair of Vet Helpline, points out that ‘the veterinary profession has an occupational culture of perfection and self-sacrifice, independence and omni-competence which is totally unachievable.’
Could it also be that it is the type of person attracted to the profession that makes them more likely to suffer from stress and compassion fatigue? Former West Australian Turf Club veterinarian Peter Symons, who has himself suffered from stress and related medical issues, explains that “vets are often do-ers (working to get through many jobs in a busy day), perfectionists (a trait required to get good marks to enter the course, and to survive the intensive tuition) and carers (the reason why they were drawn to the profession in the first place).”
When you examine the evidence, you see that the profession attracts high achieving young people who are unused to failure, have a very strong compassionate drive, are highly motivated and are perfectionists. They are joining a profession that is very hard on itself with very unique stressors and this combination can for many people be a recipe for disaster.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to this problem and to suggest that there might be is totally unrealistic and simplistic. It is absolutely clear to me that the ‘elephant in the room’ can no longer be ignored – it’s presence must be acknowledged and the profession must go further and embrace it as part of the solution.
In the late 1990’s American Traumatologist Charles Figley realised through his work supporting staff who cared for traumatised people and animals that, as a result of vicarious trauma (our inability to effectively differentiate between trauma that has happened to us and that which we witness), these staff were showing the same symptoms as those they cared for. He called this this compassion fatigue.
Awareness is the key first step. Organisations and individuals who to turn and face the issue can begin to look for effective solutions.
To raise awareness, we have to get people talking about it. Mental illness is a real thing but all too often the fear and stigma surrounding it means that it is only talked about in hushed tones and away from other people or not at all. The other issue is that if people do admit to it they feel guilty, how can you admit even to yourself that you are ‘running low on compassion’ when this is the very emotion you need to do your job and support the animals and people you are there to help. Furthermore, in many professions admitting to anyone that you are feeling this way can be viewed as weakness and that you are unable to cope with the demands of your job. In the worst case you may even be told to ‘man up’ or reminded that ‘you knew what the job was when you trained for it’. For what should be very obvious reasons neither approach will work in the long term and can in fact lead to very real harm as when people feel that they are not able to share how they are feeling they will pretend they are ok with sometimes tragic consequences. Many animal health care professionals know of colleagues who have taken their own lives.
It is rarely sufficient for people working in a caring role to be able to cope with the emotional demands of their job simply through awareness of the potential dangers of the role and subsequently taking responsibility for caring for themselves. Those who train, manage and support these staff have an equal responsibility to put measures in place inside the workplace to adequately support them.
It is simply not enough to just give ‘lip service’ to the issue and write about it in journals. There needs to be a mandatory requirement to provide emotional health and safety training for staff in the same way that we provide physical health and safety.
The emphasis MUST be on prevention as well as cure. It must include pre-event intervention not just deliver post-event diagnosis.
What are the chances that the contents of the first aid box in a corner will prove adequate if you didn’t know that the animal you are about treat might be dangerous, and therefore have taken no precautions?
Emotional Health and Safety
What is needed is a change in legislation to force employers to take the same care of their employee’s emotional health as they do their physical help and alongside this training. But not just any training in stress management, it must be training that is designed to acknowledge compassion fatigue, secondary or vicarious trauma so that those attending understand the physical and psychological reasons why they feel as they do. It is not enough to just give staff advice on self-care, they need to understand why this is so vital and what the early signs and symptoms are that they are beginning to suffer so they can put measures in place to increase their resilience. Resilience is a muscle and it can be strengthened but only when you know when and how.
The old saying is ‘you can’t eat the whole elephant’ and this rings true for the metaphorical elephant as well, change will not happen overnight but it is coming and it needs to be embraced; a mentally and emotionally fit and resilient workforce is good for everyone, human and animal alike.
View all the range of Compassion Fatigue Awareness online CPD modules by Jayne EF Training