Every year, I like to reflect on this article I wrote in 2018 and share it with our supporters as an important reminder. Especially in these chaotic times, your mental health is just as important as your physical health. The news is inundated with negativity, and, yes, we should acknowledge and take an active part in what’s going in the world as fellow humans navigating all of this craziness. However, it’s equally as important to take a break and the time you need to recover from it all.
It’s especially difficult to navigate these times when you work, volunteer or play an active role in a field that is emotionally tolling. This article is written for you – the one that has dedicated their time to improving the lives of animals (and those who work to improve the lives of others):
If you work in animal welfare as a staff member, volunteer, supporter, veterinarian, rescue worker, or really in any capacity, compassion fatigue (further referred to as CF) is likely something you have experienced. Though the term may seem foreign to some, the feelings and effects of CF are anything but novel to many of our readers. However, like other negative emotions associated with depression and anxiety, we are likely to bottle them up and pretend they don’t exist in an effort to not burden those around us.
What we don’t realize is that our peers in the animal care field may be experiencing the same feelings of CF and need to talk about it as well. Though CF is common in the animal care field, with shelter workers, rescue teams, veterinarians and the like, it is also prevalent in the health care field. This article focuses on the animal care field, but the symptoms are widespread and the skills we can learn to conquer CF are useful for many.
Dr. Charles Figley, Director of Tulane University’s Traumatology Institute, defines CF as, “A state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.” CF is not exclusive to those that have a career in animal welfare, deal with end-of-life situations or have been in the field for a long period of time. CF also has no correlation with gender or age (CompassionFatigue.org).
In a field like animal care where it feels like the work is never done and the workers are in constant demand to respond to suffering, it is easy for these workers to disregard their own limits and neglect self-care. These exhausted workers then fall victim to CF, experiencing symptoms, which include: feeling burdened by compassion, isolation, loss of interest, mental and physical fatigue, insomnia, feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness, difficulty concentrating, nightmares, overeating or excessive drug or alcohol abuse, frequent complaining, poor self-care and denial (Psychology Today).
If you are unsure you are experiencing CF from your work in animal welfare, a leading expert of CF, Dr. Beth Hundall Stamm, created a questionnaire that can help you better understand your symptoms. The Professional Quality of Life (PROQOL) questionnaire can be found online at www.ProQOL.org, which includes 25 language translations.
If you’ve established that you are dealing with CF, what are the ways you can overcome this issue to continue your important work for the animals? It may be easy for someone to suggest taking time away from your work or to practice more self-care, but that’s easier said than done. It’s especially difficult for those that volunteer and have other careers and personal lives that are also priorities and for those that feel they have dedicated their lives to making a difference. Taking time off is the furthest option from these people’s minds.
However, with the growing awareness about CF, there are more and more online articles and ideas coming out about how to battle this affliction that don’t necessarily require you to step away from your work, unless that is needed. Here are few pointers to help the symptoms of CF or to help protect yourself from CF, as discussed by CompassionFatigue.org:
Take some time to reflect on the positive aspect of your work. Ask yourself why you have chosen this field and feel proud of the work you have done. Create emotional boundaries. Seek new hobbies outside of your field. Take time to relax and recharge. Healthily process the strong, negative emotions related to your work – don’t bury them. Face your pains, both personal and work-related, by healing yourself first. If needed, seek professional help to help process your emotional pains. Talk to others that can validate your feelings.
It is often said, “You can’t show compassion for others until you can show compassion for yourself,” and this is wildly important if we want to be a voice for the voiceless. If we do not find ways to nurture our own welfare, we will have nothing left to give for the welfare of animals. I urge all of our amazing animal care workers to take a quick step back to analyze your mental and physical health, care for yourselves, talk to your peers and seek professional assistance if you’re feeling the effects of CF. Your work is so important, but so is your well-being.
An Aiken native and self-proclaimed cat lady, Claire Roberson is the SPCA Albrecht Center’s Communications Director, working in marketing, grant writing and media correspondence. She attended College of Charleston, where she graduated with a degree in Nonprofit Business and interned with Charleston Animal Society, the leader in No-Kill South Carolina. When not working, you can find Claire hanging out with her 18-pound Maine Coon mix, Anakin.