How to help animal rescue workers get over compassion fatigue and occupational stress

Occupational stress and compassion fatigue is not uncommon in animal rescue workers. One of the most visited pages on this website concerns the high suicide rate among American animal rescue workers. In fact they have the highest suicide rate among all American workers and same level as police officers and firefighters.

Animal care work can be particularly stressful
Photo by John Hwang (modified by PoC).
Until September 7th I will give 10 cents to an animal charity for every comment written by visitors. It is a way visitors can contribute to animal welfare without much effort and no financial cost. Please comment. It helps this website too which at heart is about cat welfare.

This begs the question as to what is being done about it in helping people in this sector of the workplace. In order to answer the question my research took me to a study by Vanessa Rohlfe of the Australian College of Applied Psychology, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia (Interventions for Occupational Stress and Compassion Fatigue in Animal Care Professionals—A Systematic Review).

There are couple of outstanding findings from this research. Firstly, there is very little on how to help animal rescue workers and other people in the animal welfare sector to get over occupational stress and compassion fatigue. There are four documents on the subject but the vast majority concern situations other than under the animal welfare umbrella such as veterinarian, animal control and animal shelter workers.

The conclusion is that on the basis of current information, occupational stress therapeutic intervention programs are beneficial to workers engaged in providing care to people. These programs focus on “psycho education and improving individual resources and coping skills through the development of relational skills, relaxation techniques, self-awareness and reflection”.

The most frequently used method to deal with occupational stress suffered by people involved in human care as opposed to animal care is cognitive-behavioural therapy or cognitive-behavioural techniques, including mindfulness-based approaches. These interventions by healthcare professionals produced, I’m told, significant reductions in stress.

The question that I have is whether animal shelter organisations or individual animal shelters have policies in place to deal with people suffering from occupational stress and compassion fatigue. I have made enquiries, on Facebook, with a couple of animal shelter organisations and thus far have not received a response. Update: the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region responded in the affirmative:

“Hi Michael. Thank you for your concern. Yes, we have several programs and resources in place to help employees avoid compassion fatigue and stress. Thank you again!”

It seems obvious, bearing in mind my earlier article, that there is a need to build into the policies of animal welfare organisations the recognition that a significant percentage of their workers might suffer from occupational stress due to various reasons such as the high level euthanasia in many animal shelters which produces what is called moral stress. This should lead to a demand that written into the policies is the means to deal with these mental health issues using, as mentioned, cognitive-behavioural techniques.

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