Compassion Fatigue – What it is and How to Deal with It
By Darlene Duggan
Occupational hazards abound in even the most benign work environments, and thanks to OSHA standards and internal health and safety protocols, most workers are well aware and prepared for these potential hazards on the job. I have even heard of training to minimize risk even for office workers and administrative personnel—beware of paper cuts and open file cabinets, if you are not paying close attention your cut can get infected or you can knock your head on the cabinet!
All joking aside, the animal welfare field is no different, as there are many hazards on the job. As animal shelters grow to be more like legitimate businesses, so too has their attention to occupational hazards evolved. And while the obvious hazards such as animal bites, transmission of zoonotic diseases (ringworm), or slips, trips, and falls are discussed with new employees and volunteers, the occupational hazard of compassion fatigue is rarely discussed.
Compassion fatigue is the result of working in an intense care-giving environment where more than the usual amount of compassion is required. Much like the medical, teaching, and hospice fields, animal shelter work requires an extraordinary amount of empathy and caring on a regular basis and around every turn. Even the administrative staff, which is removed from direct contact with animals, can experience compassion fatigue.
For many in the field, it seems like a never-ending stream of animals. Some have even called it a revolving door: One animal goes out, and there is immediately another to take its place. There are always mouths to feed, illnesses to cure, and money to be raised. For some, there is an intense guilt when they leave the shelter—they are plagued with thoughts that they could have done more, could have taken care of just one more animal before the end of their shift.
Although successes and celebrations are plentiful in animal sheltering, there are many opportunities to feel like your contributions are inadequate to make even a dent in the workload. Compassion fatigue is real, and should be dealt with as a preventive measure by shelters and rescues rather than a reactive measure once symptoms are recognized.
One of the tricky features of compassion fatigue is that the symptoms and warning signs can vary dramatically from one person to the next, so it can be hard to recognize. Exhaustion, headaches, and body aches and pains can be physical manifestations of compassion fatigue, but excessive blaming of others, alcoholism, and frequent complaining or depression can be emotional and mental manifestations as well.
Shelter staff and volunteers need to recognize the symptoms in themselves and take appropriate measures to combat the problems. They can take days off of work/volunteering, temporarily swap job roles with coworkers or cross-train for other volunteer opportunities, talk about their thoughts with co-workers and people outside of the sheltering world, etc. Organizations can be proactive about compassion fatigue with their staff by educating employees and volunteers about the concept, regularly rotating staff amongst tasks, allowing for adequate breaks throughout their shifts, and encouraging discussion about their thoughts and feelings. When compassion fatigue hits a critical mass in the shelter, the entire productivity of the organization suffers. Chronic absenteeism, sluggish efficiency, and employee infighting can all result—thus taking away from the animals and the work that needs to be done.
In the end, it is important to acknowledge that compassion fatigue exists for shelter workers, and to help by spreading awareness of the concept. In many cases, others in the industry are our best advocates for dealing with compassion fatigue. Maintaining a strong work and home balance, keeping up with activities outside of animal welfare, and keeping an open line of communication are good ways to combat the symptoms. For staff and volunteers alike, be aware of the symptoms, and take action to head them off. There are many online resources (such as the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project) for dealing with compassion fatigue and any mental health care provider is also well equipped to deal with the issues.
And remember, as important as you are to the well-being of the homeless animals, you are no good to them if you are not at your best. So, take care of yourself first, and the rest will fall in line!
For many years, Darlene worked behind the scenes at The Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago–overseeing volunteer programs, problem solving shelter issues, and laboring tirelessly for the welfare of animals. Her bi-weekly column, The Shelter Voice, will explore the complex concepts surrounding animal rescue and welfare usually reserved for discussions amongst those at the very front lines of the industry. She hopes to broaden the understanding and education of shelter supporters so they can act as well-informed advocates for the cause and help spread the adoption and rescue message throughout their community.
To read more from Darlene, check out her Blog–Shelter Report.