EAU CLAIRE, Wis. – Some may think dairy farmers are wired a little differently than the average American. Dairy farmers put in hours many Americans cannot fathom. Farmers deal with income and profit fluctuations most cannot comprehend. Add to that the emotional stressors of being the caretakers for numerous living creatures and you have a recipe for a way of life many cannot understand.
Monica Cramer-McConkey, of the Minnesota Ag Centers of Excellence, spoke about what compassion fatigue is and how the fatigue affects dairy farmers in her presentation, “Watch Out for that Blind Spot,” at the Professional Dairy Producers Calf Care Connection Oct. 27 in Eau Claire.
“You might be thinking, as a calf specialist, ‘What does this have to do with me?’ The biggest question is what it has to do with your calves,” said Shelly Mayer, PDPW executive director. “Think about that day when you are feeling really down, and you’re checking on your calves; if you aren’t on you’re A-plus, you can overlook something.”
According to Dr. Charles Figley, of the Tulane University Traumatology Institute, compassion fatigue is a state experienced by individuals helping other people or animals in distress. Someone suffering from compassion fatigue experiences extreme tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those they are caring for to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.
Cramer-McConkey said first responders are one group who often experience compassion fatigue. So, too, do veterinarians as they are constantly working with animals and possibly distressed owners.
“For those of you who work with calves, we all know that fine line sometimes of keeping these fragile little animals healthy and robust, getting them to that next stage; it all takes a lot out of person,” Cramer-McConkey said. “It can be devastating to put so much into a sick animal and have them not make it.”
Compassion fatigue may cause exhaustion, anger and irritability along with a reduced ability to feel sympathy and empathy. People may experience a diminished sense of enjoyment in their career; dread working with certain people or in certain situations, experience difficulty separating their work life from their personal life and experience absenteeism. Sometimes increased use of alcohol and drugs may occur along with issues associated with physical health, sleeping and appetite.
“Dr. Figley said, ‘Eventually, we lose a certain spark of optimism, humor and hope. We’re tired. We aren’t sick, but we aren’t ourselves,’” said Cramer-McConkey. “People report that they are unable to let go of the worries and are unable to focus on things outside of work; they are just really mentally and emotionally tuned in to the distressing things at work.”
Cramer-McConkey said compassion fatigue is not the same thing as experiencing burnout.
“Burnout is really more about environmental issues with the job. You’re bored, or it is monotonous or it is inefficient,” Cramer-McConkey said. “Compassion fatigue is much more intimate and emotional. You carry it with you internally.”
To heal from compassion fatigue, Cramer-McConkey encouraged people to find someone they can talk to who understands what they are going through. Eating properly, exercising and getting enough sleep is important as well. She suggested taking time off and developing hobbies and interests outside of work to help identify what is important in life.
“The worst thing you can do is isolate yourself,” Cramer-McConkey said. “Understand that the pain you are feeling is normal. Sometimes when we lose animals and are grieving those animals, we feel like others might not see that as legitimate or being real grief. … That grief of losing livestock is a very real thing.”
Building resilience is paramount in preventing compassion fatigue from happening in the first place, according to Cramer-McConkey.  
“Resilience is the ability to navigate adversity and to be able to grow and thrive from challenges,” she said. “It is not just going through a tough time and barely getting through, dragging ourselves across the finish line. It is learning from those experiences, picking up skills, becoming more confident so that when we have the next difficult time we are able to get through it better. It is the concept of returning to a normal level of functioning after adversity.”
To illustrate her point, Cramer-McConkey compared people to palm trees and the trees’ ability to stay standing through extreme storms.
“Palm trees are able to withstand the adversity of those storms,” Cramer-McConkey said. “The adversities you face could be financial, about relationships, mental or physical health issues, dealing with stress; you know the things that plague your mind. Talking to someone, building resilience helps you deal with those stressors better, so you come out on the other side feeling better and better able to deal with those stresses in the future.”