“Only compassionate, empathic, loving and caring people suffer from compassion fatigue; the very people who are so vital to the animal-care field” – Charles Figley, 2006 Book: Compassion Fatigue in the Animal Care Community.
“Compassion fatigue in animal-related professions is most often considered to be a direct result of the impact of euthanasia” – Occupational Stress & Compassion Fatigue: The effects on workers in animal-related occupations by Mrs Rebekah Scotney
Compassion fatigue in animal shelters
People working in animal welfare are more likely to suffer from compassion fatigue. Veterinarians are a classic example with higher than average suicide rates. Animal rescue workers are also under increased stress. This is partly because they have personal expectations and goals which are difficult to achieve in animal rescue due to limited resources and the number of unwanted cats. There is pressure to achieve no-kill. Circumstances leads to the killing of healthy cats at shelters. The ‘euthanasia’ (killing in reality) of healthy cats in large numbers is seen by the public as dirty work and causes euthanasia related strain in workers.
For a person who cares and most animal shelter workers care, the euthanasia of animals in their care can be traumatic. There is a conflict between job satisfaction for animal welfare workers at shelters and the stress of the dry work of killing cats. It seems that shelter employees who work in the field beyond 2 years are considered survivors.
Another factor is that people working in animal shelters are predominantly young females (wrong? – tell me). Females are generally considered to be more caring. This may be learned or inherited behavior. But the fact is that if a person is more caring and drawn to work in an animal shelter they are more likely to suffer from compassion fatigue. They will also be stressed by the euthanasia of animals. They probably form relationships with some of the cats in their care. This must make it more likely that they will be stressed when these animals are euthanised. Workers who believe that they are skilled burn out faster.
Added pressure on shelter workers may come from their feeling that the public can see animal ‘shelters’ as not shelters at places where animals are euthanized. There has been a sharp decrease in the euthanasia of shelter animals over the years in the US but the numbers remain high.
Easing the stress
Shelter management also suffer from compassion fatigue. There are exceptions and examples of uncaring individuals at animal shelters. However, I am sure the vast majority care profoundly about animal welfare. What can management due to alleviate ‘euthanasia stress’ of workers? ASPCA provides guidance.
- Exercise is a great stress reliever. I guess some sort of factored-in break to take exercise outside the work place would be beneficial.
- Employees should feel free to discuss their feelings with management and management should be sympathetic and open. There should be no stigma associated with an employee coming forward and opening up about their feelings of stress and even suicide.
- In this vein there could be an in-house counselling service.
- Work times should be flexible. This gives back a degree of control to employees which helps manage stress.
- Celebrate the successes and give awards and rewards for great work.