Earlier this year I came across an article about compassion fatigue that introduced me to the fabulous work of Enid Traisman, CT, MSW. A certified grief counselor and Director of the Pet Loss Support Program at DoveLewis Emergency Animal Hospital in Portland, OR, Enid recently co-founded the DoveLewis wellness program to support the staff in the benefits of self-care and work-life balance.
Research has shown that in order to effectively manage compassion fatigue, changes must happen at both the individual and the organizational level. So I was thrilled to learn that DoveLewis was making staff wellness a priority, incorporating different approaches to supporting staff as they engage in this challenging work. Eager to learn more, I reached out to Enid.
Jessica: Can you tell us more about Wellness Month at Dove? How did this idea become a reality?
Enid: Over the years I have seen amazing veterinary professionals pour their hearts and souls into their jobs, and I have seen countless numbers of these wonderful folks suffer from compassion fatigue and burnout. Some leave the field, others continue to practice but no longer enjoy working.
Veterinary care is high stress for a variety of reasons, including the shorter lifespan of animals, economic restraints inhibiting optimal care, difficult clients, cranky coworkers and long, long hours. Many veterinary professionals are born to be caregivers. Caregivers by nature thrive on helping others, often at the expense of taking care of their own needs that they may deem unimportant or even selfish.
As a certified grief counselor and compassion fatigue specialist I have seen firsthand and studied the importance of teaching self-care and work-life balance to veterinary professionals. For years I have been providing workshops teaching these skills to facilitate veterinary professionals in continuing and enjoying their career helping animals.
The workshops, complete with self-assessments and tools to build a viable self-care routine were well received and helped people understand why they were feeling fatigued. BUT, it is hard to put into action changes necessary for combating and healing from compassion fatigue – and that is where the idea for bringing Wellness Month to our staff came from.
Along with my co-worker, CVT and certified yoga instructor Josey Kinnaman, we designed a month full of activities and opportunities that would be easily accessible for our staff. Our goal was to encourage and make it easy for our staff to experience a variety of self-care practices in hopes of starting new healthy habits.
Some of the opportunities provided at the hospital:
* Fresh healthy snacks and drinks daily to help sustain their physical bodies.
* Yoga sessions twice weekly to support a healthy mind and body.
* Onsite massages to sooth sore, tense muscles.
* Guided imagery with a Buddhist monk to teach relaxation of the mind and body.
* Art activities to unleash creativity, including scented bath salts and neck warmers.
* A contest to encourage exercise, hobbies, and replenishing activities outside of work.
How has the response from staff been so far?
Many of the staff were enthusiastic and appreciative of the many activities we brought to the hospital for them to participate in. We had upwards of 70% participation in some of the activities. We heard many great comments and requests to continue with wellness activities every month.
What advice do you have for management, of animal shelters and vet practices, who would like to support their staff’s emotional health and to encourage workplace wellness?
The support of management is essential for impacting positive changes in the culture of work environment. By providing the expectation and allotting time for employees to take good care of themselves it is more likely to happen. Even small changes like implementing regular breaks for the staff so they can eat a healthy snack, hydrate and take walk around the block for some fresh air will make a huge difference.
I have heard managers say that it is too busy to take breaks…I disagree; staff members will be more effective, make fewer mistakes and be more pleasant with their co-workers and patients if their basic needs are being met.
Managers can support work-life balance by limiting overtime scheduled. With a tough job like veterinary care, it is very important to have time away from the stressors of the job to unwind and replenish between shifts. They must have time to catch up on sleep and have some fun and exercise to be at the top of their game.
In the long run, supporting self-care and work-life balance will come back to the hospital tenfold, happier staff, well cared for patients and clients and less turnover.
Euthanasia plays a big part in our experiences of compassion fatigue. Many of us are grieving the deaths of the animals we’ve cared for, at the shelter or at our vet practices, as well as comforting our clients who are grieving the loss of their pets. What, if anything, can we do to make this part of our jobs less traumatic?
Acknowledging how sad euthanasias are and recognizing that they take a toll emotionally is a good first step. Too many veterinary professionals push the sadness down and shrug their shoulders thinking this is just part of my job. Yes, it is part of the job, a sad part that needs to be consciously attended to.
Additionally, I try it instill in our staff that grieving clients do not need to be fixed; their sadness need not weigh heavily on us because grief is a normal, healthy response to loss. The people who are grieving loved their animals deeply and experienced the joy of the human animal bond. In this field, we love those people for taking good care of their companions. And, people will heal from their grief in time and with support. I explain to the veterinary staff that by providing a compassionate euthanasia and expressing heartfelt condolences for the family they are providing a meaningful service and setting the groundwork for a healthy healing process. Trust that these folks will heal, but first they need the space and support to grieve, not to be “fixed”.
Are there any rituals or practices that might help veterinary hospital staff to cope with the challenges of the work and let go of painful emotions?
Each individual and/or hospital will benefit by creating a ritual to deal with the buildup of sadness. Some hospitals dim the lights for a moment to signify a euthanasia will be taking place to acknowledge the reverence of life and death, a moment of silence instead of background chatter about weekend plans. For some people, taking a moment at the end of each shift to say the names of those who died, writing their names and a special quality about them in a book or reciting a prayer. For others it may be getting a weekly massage to release the sadness and tension they were holding in their bodies. Someone else may take a hike to a beautiful spot and lay stones in memory of each family who has suffered a loss.
What’s a simple self-care act that consistently replenishes and sustains you?
I practice healthy eating, exercise, and sufficient sleep regularly. I enjoy the guilty pleasure of watching TV in the evening with my cats and dogs on the couch with me. My hobby is fused glass work, creating in my studio replenishes me. I hope to hike more this summer and plan a trip to somewhere exotic.
Is there something that gets in the way of your self-care? How do you move through it?
Not enough time is a constant struggle. I remind myself that I must prioritize and make time to eat healthy, exercise and sleep. It is a continuous struggle to put my basic needs first, so that I don’t become cranky and irritable about helping others. When I feel I am going off course, I remind myself to be mindful, to do some easy, quick deep breathing exercises, and schedule in a nice bath or movie night in the immediate future as a gift to myself.
Do you have a mantra or favorite quote that serves as a guidepost in your work?
The heart first pumps blood to itself before it pumps blood to the rest of the body; I must take good care for myself if I want to take good care of others.
How would you finish this sentence?
Self-Care is: essential to sustain our ability to help others.
Any other words of wisdom?
Self-care is not a one-time activity. It’s not a finite project like building a house. It’s more like the ongoing creation of a garden. It’s never done. It requires ongoing attention. Yet, like the joy of tending and continually creating a garden, there can be great contentment and satisfaction in tending to our own bodies, hearts and souls. Service to the animals is sacred. And so is taking great care of ourselves.
Yes, that’s so well said. Thank you Enid!
For more of Enid’s work, visit her DoveLewis blog, or pick one of her five books, which includes My Pet Remembrance Journal designed for bereaved pet owners.
p.s. If you’re outside of the Portland, OR area and would like to deepen your understanding of compassion fatigue, you may be interested in my 2015 summer class, Compassion Fatigue Strategies, at the University of Florida’s Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Program or one of my other online courses.