The Dangers of Compassion Fatigue

By Mary Oquendo

Groomers have had a tough year. We are called to work with pets. We try and help them feel better and look good, sometimes in spite of the condition they come to us in. We battle owners who don’t tell us any health concerns that could impact grooming and get mad if we can’t salvage a pelted coat.

We get bad Yelp reviews and social media backlash if something happens in our care that many times is out of our control. We are dealing with legislation and licensing based on owner emotion.

We try to soldier through, but what happens when we just can’t do it anymore? We lose our passion for our work. It begins to affect our emotional well–being. It feels more than just a case of burnout.

It may very well be Compassion Fatigue, which is sometimes confused with burn out, but is a very different condition. To understand what Compassion Fatigue is requires the input of someone more knowledgeable than myself. Catherine Anne (Frend) Gillihan, Retired NCG, BS/ Behavioral Science/ Resilience Trainer, Certified Crisis Counselor and Equine Facilitated Learning Practitioner offered up her expertise.

How did you become involved in this type of work?

Catherine: I am a retired groomer. When I retired, I started looking for my “second career.” I decided, as much as I loved helping animals and, at times, felt like my clients’ therapist, it was time for me to help people through understanding why we behave the way we do. I have seen so many cases of groomers “just losing it,” where the dog and sometimes employees end up paying the price. It was time to step up, take that lifetime of understanding the industry, couple that with becoming educated in mental health, and I became determined to get the word out. Compassion Fatigue and burnout are real and they will, if left untreated, create a volatile environment.

What is the difference between Compassion Fatigue and burnout?

Catherine: Compassion fatigue also is known as “Vicarious Traumatization” or “Secondary Traumatization.” It is the emotional strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events. It differs from burnout, but can co–exist. Compassion Fatigue occurs from exposure to one case or maybe the result of a series of traumas. Burnout is a cumulative process marked by emotional exhaustion and withdrawal associated with the increased workload and institutional stress, but is not trauma–related. These two conditions can co–exist simultaneously, or one can start before the other.

What are the symptoms of Compassion Fatigue?

Catherine: It can affect different areas of your wellbeing including some or all of the following:

  • Nervous system arousal (sleep disturbance)
  • Decreased cognitive ability
  • Impaired behavior and judgment
  • Feeling of isolation and loss of morale
  • Depression and PTSD
  • Loss of self–worth
  • Unable to modulate or control emotions
  • Impacts your view of the world and spirituality
  • Changes your psychological needs (increases or decreases your dependency upon safety, trust,      esteem, intimacy, and self–control)
  • Loss of hope and meaning (may create an existential despair)
  • Unwarranted anger towards individuals, animals, or events.

What are the real danger signs?

Catherine: Finding yourself quick to anger with individuals and animals, and unable to understand why you cannot tolerate the usual stressors during the day. Normal day–to–day situations such as: dog barking, peeing or pooping in a kennel after a bath, a regular is having a bad day and cannot stand still may set you off.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is my ability to function altered?
  • Am I regularly waking up tired in the morning and struggling to get to work?
  • Do I feel as if I am working harder but accomplishing less?
  • Am I becoming frustrated or irritated easily, almost with–out prompting?
  • Am I losing compassion for human clients and/or animals?
  • Am I experiencing frequent illness and migraines?

What can a groomer do to prevent or deal with Compassion Fatigue?

Catherine: Prevention can start with preventing burnout. Schedule regular time off, learn how to recognize your personal limits, STOP comparing yourself to others (which leads to poor self–esteem), recognize your busy times of the year and plan accordingly, develop boundaries within your business and personal life, and make a commitment to upholding them. Ask For HELP. It is never a bad decision to go and speak with a counselor; it is private and confidential. Join a group (again, confidential) to learn how to establish boundaries and release the stress and tension of daily client interactions.

How can a groomer seek help?

Catherine: Call your Primary Care Physician (I understand most in the grooming industry struggle with affordable healthcare.) If you use your insurance, generally you will need a referral. If you have insurance that does not require a referral for mental health, then you can go straight to finding someone in your area.

All mental health visits are confidential, so don’t worry about using someone close by. Therapists cannot discuss your case with anyone. Mental Health professionals will not engage unless you engage, keeping your relationship 100 % confidential.

Private Non–Profit Mental Health Clinics are popping up everywhere allowing for the noninsured or underinsured to obtain benefits upon a cash sliding scale (sometimes allowing for visits as low as $5 to $45).

I am always available to reach out to; ([email protected]). I can enlist a wide range of colleagues to obtain the help that is needed.

If you belong to a body of faith, most congregations have counselors on staff.

I am proud to be part of such a supportive industry. I would like to reiterate: Ask For Help! If you recognize the symptoms and danger signs in another groomer, intervene. You may save the life of a pet or the groomer.✂