Compassion Fatigue is 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.
(Dr. Charles Figley)
In the midst of the SPCA Albrecht Center’s kitten season crisis, the feelings of being overwhelmed, emotional and exhausted engulfed the staff and volunteers that were working every day to care for the hundreds of animals in our care. However, these feelings are not just 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 (www.compassionfatigue.org).
Our supporters, adopters and donors are with us every day, either physically or in spirit, by rallying behind our efforts and by being the voice for and helping save the lives of our community’s homeless animals. No matter how much time you give to a cause, how many animals you rescued or how much you donate, compassion fatigue (further referred to as CF) may be something you are experiencing (CF is also very prevalent in the health field).
In a world inundated with Facebook stories and news articles detailing heartbreaking situations and asking for urgent response, we can easily feel as though our empathy-tank is running on empty. We begin to feel as though our fight for what we believe in is impossible. Simply, as Dr. Charles Figley, Director of Tulane Traumatology Institute, said, “caring too much can hurt” (www.compassionfatigue.org).
Specifically, in a field like animal care where it feels like the work is never done and the workers (staff, volunteers, supporters, etc.) are in constant demand to respond to suffering, it is easy for them to disregard their own limits and neglect self-care. They 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, 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 and continue your life saving work? It may be easy for someone to suggest taking time away from 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 or to help protect yourself from CF:
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 – i.e. a trusted coworker or a friend you volunteer with (www.compassionfatigue.org).
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 supporters and animal welfare 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 Grimes is the SPCA Albrecht Center’s Development Director. She attended College of Charleston, where she graduated with a degree in Nonprofit Business and interned with Charleston Animal Society. She is excited to now be working in animal welfare in her hometown and is proud of the community's robust efforts to better the lives of Aiken’s animals. Her family includes her husband Logan, adopted black lab Ozzy, and two always-hungry kitties, Anakin and Luna (plus, in spirit, her late pup Sophie).