Compassion Fatigue in the Animal Care Industry

by Colleen Mihelich

Working in the Petcare industry can be a double-edged sword. You love animals, you love being able to make a positive difference for animals, you love what you do, but the emotional stress can be draining and exhausting. There is a term for this, it’s called Compassion Fatigue (further referenced as CF) and it is very real. “People continue in their field because they love their work; this love causes them terrible pain.” Compassion Fatigue in the Animal-Care Community, Figley and Roop

Like other stressful things in life, it’s often easiest to just ignore the stress and keep going. CF gets expressed in the workplace in a variety of different ways – conflicts with pet owners, conflicts between co-workers, absenteeism, long hours, and painful exposure to animals who have suffered. And it spills over into your personal life – sleepless nights, exhaustion, acute sadness, depression, isolation from friends, a life that feels out of balance, riding an emotional rollercoaster, and anger at people in general for the terrible ways in which they can treat animals.

According to Dr. Robert G. Roop, President of the Humane Society University and author of Compassion Fatigue in the Animal-Care Community, CF is most prevalent in the animal care field than in any other field. Why is this? He believes that it is the sheer volume of animals, of beings, that animal care workers deal with on a daily basis. Unlike physicians for humans, or psychologists or counselors, people in the animal care field, specifically in shelters and rescues, can be caring for up to 500 animals a day in some cases. The number of lives and suffering that one is exposed to is much higher than in human care fields. This creates a burden on the heart and soul of the caregiver. Everyone responds differently to these stressors and everyone has different coping skills available to them.

There are some interesting facts about CF and animal care stressors in general: 1) CF is only minimally related to euthanasia, 2) females have only slightly higher CF scores, 3) CF is not age-related, and 4) CF has no connection to length of service. These facts are surprising to most people. Anyone in the animal care community can “get” CF, and Dr. Roop specifically uses the word “get” as a reminder that no one is born with CF. It develops, and can develop in anyone who is involved in a care giving relationship. It is the “cost of caring for others in emotional pain”**.

The concept and designation of CF developed out of the field of traumatology and falls under the category of Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder (STSD). We’ve all heard the term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), especially with the number of returning soldiers from the Middle East. With PTSD the symptoms are directly connected to the person who is suffering and experiencing the traumatic stress firsthand. The symptoms of STSD are pretty much identical to PTSD with the difference being that the “exposure to knowledge about a traumatizing event is experienced by a significant other.”* PTSD is about the absorption of someone else’s pain and suffering. You are like a full sponge that cannot absorb any more pain and suffering.

During the course of an average day at work for you, what would you say the ratio of happy experiences is to sad experiences? Even if you’re more heavily weighted towards happier experiences, according to Stephen P. Robbins, author of Organizational Behavior, “people reflect and think about events inducing negative emotions 5 times as long as they do about events inducing strong positive emotions.” It is simply human nature. We replay negative and traumatizing events over and over in our minds. There is a debilitating and negative effect on our emotions and our stress levels when we re-experience the trauma in these replays in our minds.

You love what you do (Compassion Satisfaction) but . . .
. . . it hurts you (Compassion Fatigue).*

So how do you balance the happy (Compassion Satisfaction - CS) and the sad (Compassion Fatigue)? The happy is the satisfaction and fulfillment that you get through working with animals, the reason why you got into this industry in the first place, right? But it comes with so much sadness, pain and often frustration.

According to research done by Figley and Roop, a very intriguing question is raised – can a person be at high-risk for experiencing CF while at the same time experiencing high CS? The emotional reality is that for most animal care workers, there is a balance between the two. A caregiver may be suffering from CF, but at the same time really like their work because of the positive benefits that they feel they’re getting from helping animals.

But the CF side can become very taxing and very destructive. Some common emotional reactions to working the suffering include: a sense of powerlessness, anxiety or fear when thinking about the client, guilt, self doubt, anger, rage, feeling shutdown or numb, sadness, depression, insomnia, loss of appetite, thoughts of death, self-medication.

These symptoms can negatively impact performance and morale in the workplace, which can also affect your co-workers and the general feeling of the office or workplace as a whole. So what can be done to counter all of this? There are several ways in which to balance and minimize the CF that you may be feeling and experiencing and increase the CS. “Self care is the most critical element.”*

You need to start to pay closer attention to, and taking better care of your own needs. As someone dedicated to a field where you’re caring for others in need, animal care workers naturally put others before themselves. But as we all intuitively know, we don’t have much to give if we don’t keep the love and generosity that we have inside nurtured, enriched and replenished. In devoting ourselves to others, we can easily lose ourselves. CF is what we experience when we are out of balance from caring for others more than we care for ourselves.

Here are some pointers to start to bring your caring and giving nature back to focus on yourself.

  1. Be sure that you’re making time in your life to relax and play. Do you have any hobbies? Cultivate activities and interests outside of your work, which have nothing to do with your work. It is critically important to your well-being to refill the well and rejuvenate.
  2. Take a look at “why” you’re so dedicated to helping animals. Be sure that you’re not putting the animals’ welfare before your own. You need to take care of yourself first. If you don't take care of yourself, you’ll have nothing left to give to the animals.
  3. Practice creating emotional boundaries. You need to protect yourself from the toxins of others’ emotional pain. When you take on others' problems and pain as your own, you are much less able to help them with their pain and suffering, the very thing that originally set out to do!
  4. You can handle strong emotions. You don’t need to avoid them, you need to process them. Sorrow, anguish, anger, rage, and guilt are going to be ever present in your work. It should be a relief to know that you can feel these feelings and they will be released – they will not overtake or destroy you. If you deny them they will fester and lead you to burnout.
  5. Accept both your reality and your own limitations. As much as you’d love to, you can't save every animal. We can each make a difference one animal at a time, and you’re most probably doing an amazing job at that every day.
  6. We all have our own issues. Work on identifying yours and you’ll find your emotional attachment to your work begin to ease. Many of us are drawn to the animal care field out of our love for the animals, but also because we have also suffered abuse, abandonment or neglect in our own lives. It’s important to face our own pain and to be careful of not becoming addicted to helping heal others instead of ourselves. It’s okay to seek professional counseling if you needed.
  7. You are a hero doing some of the most difficult and most important work for animals. Honor yourself and feel proud of the difference you are making. Know and recognize that you are an active part of the solution.

* Compassion Fatigue in the Animal-Care Community, Figley and Roop