If you are one of the many big-hearted and hard-working volunteers, supporters or staff members involved in the animal care field, compassion fatigue is likely something you have experienced. Though the term may seem foreign to some, the feelings and effects of compassion fatigue 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 compassion fatigue (further referred to as 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.
I want to add a disclaimer that when I refer to ‘workers’ in the animal care field, this incorporates anyone involved in this field in any capacity. This could mean volunteers, board members, supporters, rescue workers, staff members, animal control officers, veterinarians or any of the many other amazing, animal-loving people that support animal welfare. 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).
To begin understanding CF and how to overcome it in order to continue our work to benefit the animals, we must first know what CF is and the symptoms. 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.”
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. Though this test is phrased for those in fields helping people, it can give great insight for those in the animal care field as well.
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 aspects 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.
Claire Grimes is the SPCA Albrecht Center’s Development Director. She is an Aiken native, but spent some college years in Charleston, interning with Charleston Animal Society. She is excited to now be working in animal welfare in her hometown and is proud of the community efforts to better the lives of Aiken’s animals. Her family includes her husband, Logan, a SPCA adopted black lab, Ozzy, a SPCA adopted Siamese mix, Luna, and Claire’s first love, Anakin, a 17-pound rescued Maine Coon mix.