Compassion Fatigue Coaching: Interview with Rebecca Taylor

Melanie White, Trainer and Assessor and Business Coach with Wellness Coaching Australia spoke with recent graduate of the Professional Certificate Program, Rebecca Taylor.

This interview with Rebecca Taylor showcases how she is using her health and wellness coaching qualification to address the issue of compassion fatigue in the vet nursing industry.

Rebecca is a vet nurse, and a recent graduate of Wellness Coaching Australia’s Professional Certificate Program.

Melanie: What got you into Health and Wellness Coaching as a profession? And how did you get started?

Rebecca: Well, during COVID, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. And the only connection we found was that stress had induced fibromyalgia. Just so much stress on my body.

I knew that I came from a really high stress industry, so that was a really big component of why I went into health and wellness coaching. I couldn’t go back into that nursing, I knew that was way too much pressure on my body and mind. And so I thought, well, how can I still make an impact in that industry?

Melanie: Tell us more about that. What came to your mind when you thought about making an impact when you first started studying health and wellness coaching?

Rebecca: Firstly,I knew that burnout and compassion fatigue are two major components of the veterinary industry and secondly, mental health is a really big focus.

The Australian Veterinary Association is really putting a lot of power behind working out why there are these mental health problems in the veterinary industry. I have been through compassion fatigue myself, and I thought, well, definitely, that is a massive component of my mental health.

Vet nurses are extremely compassionate people, putting a lot of energy into the industry, because we love it. And then we hit that wall of compassion fatigue, which can then lead to burnout.

Melanie: Yes, and I’m wondering also if it’s fair to say there is an element of vicarious trauma in those roles?

Rebecca: Absolutely. Especially when you’re working in the animal welfare side of the vet industry. Not everyone can be exposed to trauma, but it is common in animal welfare.

Melanie: Okay. And so you decided to go for the compassion fatigue side of things?

Rebecca: I did, because we look at burnout a lot of the time, and we’re thinking we’re in burnout. But are we in burnout? Or are we in compassion, fatigue? And I think that’s a huge component of having that understanding of what compassion fatigue is. We need to be able to distinguish them.

Melanie: I’m curious now, what’s the difference between compassion fatigue and burnout? I mean, I’ve been through burnout. And I understand what that’s like. But I’m curious to know how you would distinguish the two.

Rebecca: Well, compassion fatigue is really that deep empathy or compassion is that deep empathy, into a person suffering. So when you’re having that constant empathy, and you’re around that all the time with euthanasia and, and trauma to a patient that’s happened, and you’re having to go into surgeries, you have a real compassion, not only with the owner, but then also with the animal as well.

And it just builds up over time, then it hits you, and then you kind of build a wall, and then you can keep going a little bit, and then it hits you again. So it’s a slower burn.

One of the signs of compassion fatigue is that you start to pull away from socializing, you just don’t have that time and energy in your body in your brain to be around people to have those conversations you start disconnecting. Disconnection is a really big component of compassion, fatigue, lack of energy, lack of sleep, you start to feel a lot of guilt towards things. Like,  “Am I doing this right?” “Am I being at my best?” I think a really big component of compassion fatigue is that guilt that you build up in around the workplace.

Melanie: I’m hearing that compassion fatigue is something that can lead to burnout, but is distinct from it in that it’s a different kettle of fish in a way that is we’ve you’ve done too much of something and you’ve reached a tipping point, almost.

Rebecca: Absolutely. And that’s why I guess you can lead into burnout, because if you’re in a really high stress workplace, that you’ve got a lot of responsibility and you’ve got timeframes and you’ve got to get things done, and then you’re emotionally exhausted, but you need to earn money.

Melanie: Okay. Wow, this sounds like something worth nipping in the bud for sure. Absolutely.

You talked about, I guess some of the signs of compassion, fatigue, guilt, and this mental exhaustion, what other things are signs of compassion fatigue? For example, let’s say someone came up to you and said, “I’m feeling this and this” – what would it be that would indicate to you that they’re going through that?

Rebecca: Well, one thing that’s really obvious is that you can get irritated very easily. So your emotions aren’t as controlled as well. They’re heightened. So a person could normally be extremely calm, but you might notice in the workplace that they are easily agitated or reactive.

And, as I mentioned, you might notice that the social interaction they might normally do, like playing basketball every week, is something they stop doing, and also pulling away from social events.

Melanie: Ok, so it sounds like irritability and pulling away socially are the other things that come up. This sounds a little bit like depression too. Some of those early warning signs of depression are that stopping doing the things that you used to love and pulling away from people to like, there are some parallels there.

Rebecca: Yeah, in a lot of mental health areas, there are a lot of connections with feelings. And that’s why it can be a bit foggy between them. But when you’re definitely in that caring role, and that compassionate role, you are at a higher risk of compassion, fatigue, and definitely, that can lead to depression, if not treated.

Melanie: Thinking about that, and you’ve just gone through a process of developing and launching your business. I’m curious to see what’s happening with that now, and firstly, how you’ve pitched or positioned your offering.

Rebecca: Initially, I was going into the Veterinary Clinics specifically, and I was talking to them and their response was very much that they are in burnout or have been in burnout, we just don’t have time to take care of ourselves, you know, it was a really big.

So I softened my approach a little bit on how I came to them. And so initially, I do an email just explaining who I was and what I was doing, and my past previous experience, and what is coaching, and then I’d actually do a phone call and have a conversation with them on the phone around what their clinical needs are in around compassion, fatigue, the understanding of compassion, fatigue, and where their staff are at.

Then I’d go in and have a meeting with them and have a personal chat one to one. So it’s very overwhelming, I think, when you’re when people in this industry are trying to talk about this stuff, so and they just don’t, they don’t have the energy for it. So I had to really soften that approach on how I came to them.

Melanie: So it’s an email and a phone conversation, and then a going in in person. And it sounds like the phone conversation was quite different to what a lot of people do. Most people get on the phone and start trying to explain themselves. But sounds like you’re really asking the person – “what’s going on in your practice?”

Rebecca: Yes, it’s about not just focusing on the one person – absolutely focusing on the team that makes this practice run – what’s going on with the individual staff? Have you found anything that’s triggering this? Are there ways that you’re developing to deal with it in the clinic?

And then that actually led me to go to animal welfare shelters as well. So I worked in an Animal Welfare Shelter for eight or just over eight years. And so I actually approached an Animal Welfare Shelter. And that’s when I said to them, I want to develop a full program that comes to the team and sees people individually, but then also does initial workshops, as a team as well, to bring it together.

Melanie: Wow. That’s incredible. And I know that people reading will say, “how do you even get in the door with an email? How do you not get rejected?” So I’m curious to know – if you sent out 10 emails to 10 vet clinics or animal shelters or whatever, how many of those would respond?

Rebecca: You’re not going to get everyone responding. And that is because it is still such a new area being identified in the industry, but we do know that there is that issue and the staff are really becoming proactive in it, especially with the Australian vet Area Association backing this and saying we’ve done a survey, we see that there is a really big problem here.

We know that one in four vets look at possibly taking their lives. So it’s huge at the moment. So when I think they see these emails coming in, they do feel like responding to them. But then that follow up phone call is definitely important.

I would say if I did 10 emails, possibly three would respond. And at the moment, I’m really happy with that, because at least there is a response there. And people are, you know, connecting with that.

Melanie: Thanks for sharing that, Bec. Because firstly, you’ve talked about the fact that it’s a new industry, but there are some strong drivers being led from the top down from the association level, but also the fact that not everyone’s ready to tackle it yet. And you’re starting with the people who are potentially the early adopters who are going to be perhaps leading the way in this, they’re perhaps going to be more committed to doing work going forward and setting the benchmark almost by the sound of things.

Rebecca: Yeah. And it’s, you’re not going to get a response from everyone exactly that because they aren’t ready to take it on that they do know that something’s going on, but they’re not ready for that change.

And we know until someone’s ready for that change, they’re not going to be able to accept support and help. So that’s why I think the workshops are really fantastic, not just a one-to-one coaching, because I make them interactive, they get their own worksheets, and then they get information as well as responding together as a team, bringing that awareness and that support together. And then from there going into the one-to-one coaching and support for those staff that are ready to take that on.

Melanie: Amazing. I’m hearing you’re using the coaching approach through the whole marketing of this and the delivery.

Rebecca: Absolutely. I want the workshops to be as interactive as possible, because I think that’s a really key important part, for us to talk start talking about it, you know, start saying this is what we’re going through, or we’ve been through this is what’s worked in the past, but I’m actually not even utilizing that at the moment. So how about I start finding ways of resetting that habit and putting it back into my life?

So yeah, getting that key balance. And I’m using a bit of a cheeky approach as well now. So as a vet, nurse, I know that animal care workers really advocate for animal environmental enrichment.

And so I’m making up little signs of what we would suggest to an owner to enrich their pet at home, versus what we need to be doing to enrich our lives to be able to produce that life balance. So yeah, utilizing the way that they we talk in the veterinary clinic to owners, and then talking that talk to vets, nurses and animal care workers at amazing.

Melanie: What I’m hearing is that you’re using analogies that they understand and it’s making them think about this is what we’re recommending to our clients. And this is what we need to be doing for ourselves.

Rebecca: Yeah, because we talk every day we talk nutrition with owners every day, we talk about how to in which reached their page, their, their pets in their backyard or outside of their backyard or socialization, how to reduce anxiety, how to reduce stress for the pet.

But then we’re not really implementing that ourselves as vet nurses or veterinarian. So I’ve started just using that, that language with them. And I’m really hoping that that’ll take off as well, because it’s at their level

Melanie: Makes such sense. And once again, it’s a great coaching approach is to use the language of the people you’re speaking to, and also great for marketing. Any challenges along the way so far Bec?

Rebecca: Definitely. We know that people in this industry are extremely busy. And they’re trying to juggle this life at work and in their home lives. And a lot of them have families. And it’s like, how do I fit in time to have a coach?

That is a big wall that I hit at the start, and it’s one that I’m going to keep on having to work through – talking to the staff about how to find time. We know that that’s a big component of coaching, how do we find time to go for a walk, do our exercise, stay healthy? So yeah, that is definitely one of the initial big barriers I came up against is I don’t have time for that.

Melanie: It’s interesting and immediately what comes to mind is motivational interviewing and saying, what’s the cost of not doing it? I’m sure you’re having those conversations.

Rebecca: Yes. I’m talking to managers and saying, “What’s the cost of you not implementing this into your workplace? How much are your staff worth?” And “how much does it cost every time you have to rehire a staff member to put in that position?” “What does that take for your team to reset and become a strong team again?” So I think there are key important components as well as the business side of supporting teams wellbeing, and having well-being programs in veterinary clinics.

Melanie: I’m hearing that you understand the needs of the person working in the industry, but also the pain points of the business. And what you’re doing can solve both of those.

Rebecca: Absolutely. Because we know that there are so many vets and nurses leaving the industry at the moment, we just do not have enough to fill the places when someone leaves.

That’s a massive burden on your staff that are already under pressure. They’re already struggling, this juggling act, and then a staff member leaves because of burnout or compassion, fatigue.

Then you’re, you’re juggling it even more your staff are even more pressure. I think there’s definitely two components of the person learning really good clear boundaries, setting up a really healthy lifestyle for themselves in the industry. And then you’ve got the side of “Well how do you have a proper wellbeing program placed into veterinary clinics to support your staff to continue that life balance?”

Melanie: It’s such an important conversation right now, particularly with legislation rolling out for workplaces around psychological first aid, psychosocial risk assessment, doubling of the fines for lack of a duty of care. And I’ve had some conversations around that myself with people recently. Some don’t want to touch that. But they’re going have to, because there are legal implications if they don’t.

Rebecca: And it doesn’t matter how big or small your practice is, it is important to have things implemented for your staff, especially in a industry that does have forms of trauma involved in them.

Vet professionals are such loving and caring people, we just want to work with animals, you know, you see people in this industry, and they see a dog down the street that they know, and their face lights up, they might not remember the owner’s name, but they’ll definitely remember the pet’s name. And so they really do love what they do. And that’s, I think, really important that we have practices in place to support their mental health and well being.

Melanie: It’s very good point. One last question I have is just about your initial traction. How are you going in terms of securing clients and getting started with workshops? How do you feel that’s going?

Rebecca: I definitely know I’m very early in, I think two months after I’ve graduated. But I have an animal shelter, that is all set to go for my well being program.

And I have some really amazing support in that area. Actually, previous manager from one of my previous welfare shelters I worked in has been really supporting me and making sure that I have really great connections for this as well, because she’s so supportive of it. So I do have an animal shelter all set up, ready to go.

We’re just finishing the component of putting together the, the actual structure of it 100% making it so suits them, and then we’re going for a grant to actually fund that for the shelter. We know that animal shelters don’t have huge amount of money and they’re running off the smell of an oily rag.

That project is going to be fantastic because they actually have a vet, vet clinic component connected to them as well. So it’ll be for all their staff, the shelter staff as well as the vet clinic staff to be involved.

The vet clinics are still taking shape. I’m working on some workshops at the moment, actually a debriefing workshop. So after an event we would do debrief coaching. That is bringing the positives out from such a traumatic experience. A lot of the time we’ll look at what didn’t go right. This is about working out what went well.

I’ve had a few vet clinics email me back, saying they are really interested in that. So that’s going to be an exciting workshop to do. And I’m also doing a workshop for the Chamber of Commerce, which is out of the veterinary area, but still working in, in that space of stress in the workplace and looking at positive stress versus negative stress. And that’s a little bit more local for me. There’s some great traction as well.

Melanie: Bec, I love what you’re doing. It sounds like you’ve established a place that’s totally supporting you and advocating for what you’re doing, and it will be funded. And then through the other threads that you’re following, there are opportunities to become really visible. And it sounds like you’re using networks that you have including the Chamber of Commerce being basically a business network, that you’re going to get a lot of visibility. I’m sure that once you get one or two case studies finished, you’ll have something to really talk about in terms of the impact that compassion fatigue coaching can have.

Rebecca: Yeah, and I think, you know, I’ve done a lot of networking, you do have to put energy into that like, and sometimes you get, you know, at the end of the day, like, oh, you know, I’ve done so much networking, and not much coaching, but I know that that’s leading to coaching that’s lit and you are coaching my networking, because you use the coaching language.

I’m really using content from the Passion to Profit course I did with you as part of the Professional Certificate. You know, we got some worksheets, we learned how to utilize that coaching language while we’re having conversation, even with phone calls. What is the issue, how is this affecting you, you know, what are the implications? How confident are you that you want to make change?

So, I am using coaching and P2P tools in those areas for example, which is great, because it’s continuing those skills.

Plus I have lots of connections but am needing to build more.

Melanie: Yeah, it’s all about finding the right people, isn’t it? And I know, you know, in marketing people may not be ready to change, not thinking about change, maybe thinking about change, preparing, etc. And it’s sometimes not even just the right person, but the right timing of finding people who are in that stage of readiness to change. And something happens from that.

Rebecca: And I think also, as a coach, sometimes you get really nervous, like, I reached out to the Australian Veterinary Association, and I’ve got a meeting booked with them. Before I sent that email to them, I was so nervous, you know, oh, my gosh, I’m sending it to them!

Have I got all the right qualifications? Am I the right person for this? And so you second guess yourself, but then it’s just like, No, I’ve got this, I’ve got the training, I’ve got the knowledge if this is a place that I want to be in, I’m going to send this email.

And, I got a great response back. So sometimes you do question yourself early on, but what’s the harm sometimes in having a No, it just means that you change direction and find a different way!

Melanie: Well said Bec. Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed to talk about what you’re doing at the moment and two months out, you’re already making a great impact and creating a ripple effect by the sound of things starting an important conversation that’s much needed and can make a real difference. So thanks for being here.