Have you been considering taking my self-study class? Then you’ll want to read this:
The Compassion in Balance SELF-STUDY class is going away on April 26th.
That’s right, I’m pulling my first born out of rotation.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with the class.
In fact, I hear stuff like this all the time from students:
“Compassion in Balance has helped me tremendously. I was on the verge of quitting last year and I feel like I’m finally in a better place now. We’ve had compassion fatigue training before, but none of it really focused on working with animals and it didn’t really make sense. You’ve bridged the gap for me and I truly appreciate it!” – Megan, Animal Shelter Volunteer Coordinator
But my work has come a long way since I launched that course in 2014.
This is the most affordable, most comprehensive compassion fatigue class for animal care and welfare workers out there, so if you want it, don’t hesitate. It WILL help. And you have access to the materials for a full year, so scoop it up now and jump in whenever you can.
One more time for the kids in the back carving their initials into their desks:
Enrollment in The Compassion in Balance self-study course ends on Friday 4/26.
p.s. If you are already a student in the self-study (thank you!), don’t worry – you will still have access to the course materials for a full year, as promised. The only thing that ends on the 26th is new enrollments.
Lately I’ve been thinking about how multiple losses can complicate grief. And if they happen in a short period of time it can overwhelm our ability to cope.
If we work with animals in shelters and vet clinics, the sheer number of losses we experience can be a major challenge (see: cumulative grief). In some workplaces we’re experiencing daily losses and in large numbers.
This puts us in a constant cycle of fresh grief with coping skills that might be really overloaded. And I’m not even including the losses we experience in our personal lives. Which I should, since most of us are grieving on any given day.
It’s wonderful. And it made me think about some of you and how, if the losses are constant, the ball never has a chance to get smaller naturally. The losses stack up and the pain can be overwhelming.
Yet we hardly talk about grief at work.
So I have questions.
What do we do with all this cumulative grief? How do we tend to it and allow ourselves to experience the pain (so that it’s not trapped inside and causing damage), but still remain functional at work?
We do a pretty terrible job of allowing for grief in our modern society. It’s all the more challenging when our workplaces are filled with unacknowledged loss and pain. Or when we avoid acknowledging that some of the losses we experience have been traumatizing.
Sometimes we’re afraid to feel or do anything because we worry that acknowledging the loss might “break the dam” and we’ll fall apart.
We’re holding so much in.
But what if we acknowledged the grief more regularly, so that there was no dam to break? What if our workplaces were psychologically safe enough for us to be vulnerable with one another?
What would it look like to acknowledge grief and to create shared rituals that allow us to grieve together in workplaces that are constantly impacted by loss?
What would a “grief-positive” or at least a “grief competent” workplace look like?
Like I said, I have a lot of questions.
But I’d never leave you hanging without some ideas for what we can do to address this.
A friend who works in harm reduction (for people impacted by drug use) mentioned how many losses her community was dealing with and shared this resource for grieving on the job, born out of AIDS bereavement work, called When Grief Comes to Work.
I highly recommend it if you’re in a leadership role. The guide includes a number of prevention and intervention strategies such as: trauma-informed organizational culture, varying workload, education so staff understands what they’re experiencing, social/group support, workplace rituals, mental health coverage, supervision to process events, and resources for self-care.
In particular, I’m turning over his thoughts on the powerful relationship between grief and gratitude, sorrow and joy:
“The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible…
A heart that does not somehow deal with grief turns hard and becomes unresponsive to the joys and sorrows of the world. Then our communities become cold; our children go unprotected; our environment can be pillaged for the good of the few. Only if we learn to grieve can we keep our hearts responsive and do the difficult work of restoring and repairing the world.”
Don’t skip the interview. It’s rich.
If you have anything to share about how organizations can address grief and loss, I’d love to hear from you.
Are any of you offering groups facilitated by a veterinary social worker or grief counselor for your staff? Do you have any rituals to acknowledge your losses? I’m curious to know what’s already being done. Leave a comment or send me a message anytime. I always want to hear from you!
If your arm was broken how long would you wait before you got help?
I would wait 1 second.
But when I was experiencing depression a couple of years ago, I waited about 6 months before I asked for help.
In all fairness, I didn’t realize I was depressed for most of that time. I thought my inability to concentrate, weepiness, and lack of energy was from grief (two of my pets died in 5 weeks) and finishing up grad school. And for the first couple of months, I think that grief and stress were indeed the cause.
But a few more months of feeling bad and I began to suspect it might be something more serious because it wasn’t going away, no matter how much self-care I threw at it.
It was my gynecologist that helped me see I was depressed.
She didn’t come to that conclusion during my pelvic exam (my cervix was surprisingly cheerful). We just talked. I took a simple depression screening. It was clear that I was more than sad. I had a medical condition.
With that clarity, I could stop trying to self-care my way out of it (I hear that’s not how you fix a broken arm either). I started taking an antidepressant.
I was high functioning while I was depressed which is why I didn’t think I needed help. But when I felt better I looked back and it was clear that I hadn’t been myself for months.
Unlike having a broken arm, depression isn’t always immediately obvious. It was hard for me to accurately assess what I was experiencing. That made it tough to get the right care.
Later on, I found a great therapist. I’ll tell you about her some other time.
I’m 100% these days. I was able to get the help I needed.
But so many people never do.
Only about a third of those suffering from severe depression seek treatment from a mental health professional.
36% of people with social anxiety disorder report experiencing symptoms for 10 or more years before seeking help.
I worry that many of you aren’t getting the care you deserve.
There are so many reasons why people don’t seek help. Health insurance. Stigma. Access to services. Cultural differences. Fear.
And there’s a TON of confusion surrounding mental health care.
Plus, there’s the mental illness itself. When you’re depressed it can be really challenging to muster up the energy to make a bowl of cereal, let alone interview therapists.
This much is clear: if a woman who was raised by two therapists and has no problem talking about mental health issues (that’s me) needs some help figuring out she’s depressed so that she can get the right care, then it’s safe to say lots of us could use a little help when it comes to sorting out mental health stuff.
Very few of us feel like we know what we’re doing in this area. That’s why I always have a live Q+A with a therapist (Hi mom!) in all of my compassion fatigue classes.
People are confused:
What kind of therapy is the right fit for me? Will my boss know if I use the EAP to find a therapist? What should I do if I notice someone at work seems depressed? Can my boss hold it against me if she finds out I used the health insurance I have through work to get medication for a mental health issue? Is compassion fatigue the same thing as depression? How do I find a good therapist (my last one wasn’t so great)?
These are just a few of the questions we get asked every year.
If you work with animals or people who are suffering and traumatized, I bet you have questions like this too because the work you do takes a toll on your mental well-being. It leaves all of us wondering WTF? some days.
If you’re in recovery, you may already be familiar with this incredibly helpful acronym because it’s a tool to help prevent relapse.
But every single one of us could use HALT. It’s a simple way to help us stay aware of our needs, so that we can care for ourselves more effectively and create better outcomes during stressful or upsetting moments.
Here’s how it works:
When you’re feeling your stress levels rise or a funk coming on, HALT is a reminder to stop and assess your true needs, before you do something that you’ll regret.
If you’re in recovery, the thing you might regret doing is using again. If you’re not, than the thing you might regret doing is yelling at your dog, saying something unkind to a loved one (including yourself), eating a whole box of cookies, being impatient or judgmental with a client at work, writing an inappropriate email, or firing off a hurtful social media rant.
Before you behave in a way that feels out of control or breaches your integrity, ask yourself if you’re:
Hungry: When was the last time you ate? Was it something healthy? Is your blood sugar low? Are you dehydrated? Hungers come in all forms: Are you hungry to have your emotional needs met?
Angry: Are you feeling resentful or angry right now? Towards another person, a circumstance at work or in the world, at yourself?
Lonely: When was the last time you talked with a friend? A counselor? A supportive coworker? Are you feeling isolated? Disconnected?
Tired: Did you get enough sleep last night? Do you need a quick nap instead of a caffeine blast? Do you need a day off?
All of these things may be influencing your thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Rather than just pushing through or ignoring your needs, identify if any of these are true for you at the moment, then take action to address them. Have a snack, talk with a friend, go for a brisk walk, take a nap.
If you can’t do anything to address your needs in that moment, acknowledge that your real needs are not being met right now.
Offer yourself some kindness and compassion. Remain aware that being hungry, angry, lonely, or tired increases the likelihood that you will act in a way that you may regret later, so tread lightly.
Or it may be the reason why you just did something you already wish you hadn’t done. Don’t beat yourself up (that never changes anything). Pause to breathe deeply. Consider how you can stay aware of your needs and better care for yourself in the future, so that you don’t allow yourself to get too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.
The next time you snap at a customer, get frustrated with your dogs, feel hopeless about something, or just feel “off”, take a moment to HALT and ask a truly self-compassionate question:
What do I really need in this moment and how can I give it to myself?
We need to talk about boundaries in the workplace.
It’s critically important that individuals learn how to create and uphold healthy boundaries in their lives in order to be well. But all the boundary-building in the world won’t help your staff all that much if your organizations don’t have policies and a culture that supports their efforts.
Let’s be honest: most animal shelters, veterinary clinics, and other animal care and welfare organizations have weak, if not non-existent, boundaries. We’re not alone in this – most non-profits and healthcare settings are the same. We’ve gotta do better.
Why should you care? Because organizations with crappy boundaries create the perfect conditions for their staff to develop burnout and compassion fatigue. That’s bad for them, it’s bad for those you serve, and it’s bad for your bottom line. So let’s talk action steps:
1. Get real about job descriptions.
If you want to reduce burnout and compassion fatigue at your organization, start by looking at job descriptions.
Sarri Gilman’s book Naming and Taming Overwhelmreminds us that self-care at home can do a lot of things, but it can’t fix a job with a never-ending, demanding, unreasonable list of expectations that can never be met during work hours. It’s a recipe for overwhelm and burnout.
So if your organization is telling employees to take better care of themselves, but their job descriptions are outrageous…whelp. That’s on you.
What are your expectations of your staff? Can they ever realistically fulfill them given the limited resources they’re working with each day?
Are they doing the work of three people? Are you afraid of your staff getting on the self-care bus because they may not want to do that anymore? Maybe you’re worried that they’ll want to go home at the end of their shift, but you know that your organization can’t function unless your staff is always working overtime.
Job descriptions (hours, tasks, responsibilities) need realistic boundaries. If you depend on your staff to consistently go beyond the boundaries of the job description they agreed to when you hired them and you consistently ask them to stay late and do more, you’re dancing with exploiting your workers.
Get honest with yourself about what you’re asking your staff to do and how you’re using their energy, which is a finite resource.
In our work culture we tend to celebrate “selfless giving” and throw shade at people who try to set limits. Taking a break becomes a personal choice fraught with emotion and can be weaponized against them.
Organizations can take the choice away, so that taking a break isn’t a referendum on any single person’s work ethic and there are clear policies about what is and is not okay to do. Normalize healthy limits:
Consider creating mandatory breaks for your foster families in between animals.
For example: implement a one week break after a litter of foster kittens goes back to the shelter. Try a one month break for foster homes after a long-term, behaviorally-challenged dog gets adopted.
Help families avoid burnout by creating the norm of taking a break between new animals. It’s not on them to decide. This reduces their guilt.
This also goes for staff. Take a hard look at how much work they’re taking home and the toll that’s taking on them.
Develop a break-positive culture at work to reduce individual decision-making.
My husband is in a union. He is required to take a 30 minute lunch and a 15 minute break every day at the same time. If he wants to skip a break or the team foresees a problem with the break schedule because of something urgent, they need to speak with the Foreman to get permission to work through their break.
He doesn’t ask permission to TAKE the break. He has to ask permission to NOT take the break. Breaks are the norm.
Breaks are not a reflection on an individual’s work ethic or commitment to getting the job done. It’s simply the way it’s done.
If someone resists taking a break, my husband’s coworkers remind them that’s not how it works. There is no decision fatigue. They know it’s okay to take the break, how long to take, and when to do it because it’s decided in advance.
No guilt. No judgement. And no one is abusing their break or leaving their coworkers hanging around wondering when they’ll be back. Clear boundaries for the win!
If your staff refuses to take breaks and vacations, you need to find out why they don’t feel safe enough to take a time out. What are they worried will happen? What do they need from you in order to feel okay about stepping away for 15 or 30 minutes? How will you, as their leadership, address it?
The same idea goes for communicating after work hours. This is a whole blog in itself. Make it the norm that non-urgent calls and emails are to be ignored until work hours. Set boundaries around tech for your staff, so they can feel safe ignoring their devices for a few hours.
THEY ARE NOT ROBOTS. PEOPLE NEED TO REST.
3. Pay them to transition back to their personal life.
Give them time on the clock to debrief at the end of their shift. This helps them create a boundary between work and home because you’re giving them 10 minutes to process what they experienced that day, so they can leave it behind.
They can debrief with their supervisor, with their team, with the person taking over for the next shift, or by themselves with a journal. The point is to make debriefing a part of their daily routine. Regularly downloading their day helps your staff to create a healthy boundary, so they can go home a little lighter and come back in the morning with the internal resources to take on new challenges.
4. Enforce a zero tolerance policy for toxic, boundary-breaking behavior among staff.
Leadership needs to monitor the boundaries between their employees in high stress, emotionally charged workplaces. As compassion fatigue levels rise, so does lateral aggression aka workplace bullying. Relational boundaries are going to get crossed. It’s the job of leadership to watch for it and address it in a timely fashion.
“If there appears to be animosity between certain employees, be sure to keep an eye on their relationship both inside work and outside work. If a member of your team is taking their work home with them, because another employee is pushing them to, without your consent, you need to implement rules that state staff should only be contacted at work, unless you, as a manager, have granted permission to do otherwise.” – Steve Pritchard, HR Rep
In addition to what’s mentioned above, be on the lookout for: gossip, passive aggressive behavior, individuals being ostracized, and other forms of bullying. These are red flags that people are not doing well and need you to pay attention.
Finally, every leader has to deal with at least one relentless boundary pusher on their staff. This person who refuses to adhere to the rules and always has a good excuse for why they need special treatment.
You want a zero tolerance policy with them too, because they will suck your goodwill dry. No matter how much you give, it won’t be enough. So set a hard line and uphold it. It’ll save you a ton of time and energy.
Here are 4 steps you can use to set boundaries with your staff based on the CARS model:
Establishing your boundary, by focusing on the behavior you do want.
Clarifying the policy, by focusing on the behavior the organization wants.
Explaining what the consequences will be for not doing the positive behavior.
Follow through with the consequences if the positive behavior is not done.
These are some of the ways I’ve seen organizations step up their boundary game to create healthier workplaces. What’s working for your org? Tell me below in the comments. I really want to know!
This goes double if the holidays were a strain on your: Time Finances Energy Emotions Relationships Pets Waistlines (c’mon, I can’t be the only one who eats sugar cookies for breakfast Christmas week?!).
When we have so much coming at us in our free time, plus work, it wears down our ability to make good choices for ourselves.
Our boundaries get wonky.
Overwhelm arrives. And with overwhelm comes drama, reactivity, and loads of poor self-care choices. Cue exhaustion.
So as you move into 2019, here’s one simple way you can repeatedly steer yourself away from overwhelm.
Every time you are faced with a choice, pause and ask yourself:
Is this energizing or draining?
Sometimes we have to do stuff that drains us. That’s life.
But loads of times we do things we don’t really want to do because we’re telling ourselves we “should” do them. That drains us.
I should go to the gym 5 days a week because that’s what a good New Year’s resolution looks like.
I should accept that dinner invite because I’m a nice person and that’s what nice people do.
I should let my friends bring their dogs over to my house, because my dog should be able to handle having canine guests and because I should be polite.
Imagine if, before you answered these requests, you paused and asked yourself: does this feel energizing for me or does it feel draining?
If it feels draining, can you give yourself permission to say NO?
Instead, can you say HELL YES to spending your limited resources on what you actually need right now? Or what authentically feels good?
If so, would you choose resting instead of running? Or a peaceful visit with friends instead of a dog fight over dinner?
I did this earlier in the week when I kept pushing myself to meditate. Why all the resistance I wondered?
Then I asked myself: If I’m being honest with myself, does meditating feel energizing or draining right now? The clearest answer came back: draining!
What would feel energizing I asked? Taking a pottery class instead.
You can back away from the edge of overwhelm by pausing before you automatically agree to requests from other people.
You can back away from exhaustion by asking yourself if what you’re about to make yourself do energizes or drains you.
If it feels draining and you’re leaning towards doing it anyway, ask yourself:
If you knew that no one would ever judge you for saying NO, would you still say YES?
You have a right to choose what works for you.
That might mean going against the grain of what other people expect you to do for them or what our cultural says “good people” who have their shit together do.
Make your resolutions work for you.
Lean towards what naturally sparks your energy. It doesn’t always have to be so hard, you know?
and you feel rested and ready for whatever comes your way today. You know that there’s a long line of animals and people who need your help. No doubt, it can feel overwhelming sometimes.
But you take a deep breath, pour yourself some coffee, put on some comfortable pants (not necessarily in that order) and feel totally confident that you can handle the challenges today will bring because you’ve got Compassionate Badassery Boundaries.
You know you can trust yourself to:
Block off time for yourself and your own needs
Turn down last minute requests that don’t work for you
Only answer emails at set times
Limit the free advice you give to friends and friends of friends of your dentist
Empower others to problem solve and help themselves
Say yes to your ideal clients and work load
Pause and think about what you really want before you give your answer
Recalibrate when you start to take on too much
Cope with uncomfortable emotions
Offer yourself compassion that you can’t help them all.
How does that sound?
Let’s stop imagining and make it happen.
Forget that fantasy you have about being able to do it all, fix everything, and save ALL the animals.
What do you REALLY want for your life?
What do you want your days to look and feel like?
Do you want to help animals AND have dinner with your family every evening? Do you want to help people AND get in bed early to read a good book? Do you want to help your community AND meet your BFF every Wednesday night at the gym?
It may not feel like it right now, but: You actually have a choice.
And I built a new class to help you create those choices for yourself.
Building your Compassionate Badassery Boundaries is all about figuring out what you want and value in your life and then creating the boundaries you need to make it happen.
Over 6 weeks, (because healthy boundaries take longer than a few days to build!) you’ll access six modules, private discussion boards, and 4 live video group coaching calls to help you do that.
You’ll be learning with people who 100% understand how hard it is to set limits when animals are in need.
We get that the struggle is real.
Here’s what you can create with the tools from this course:
Know with confidence what you’ll say (or email) in order to have respectful, kind relationships with other people, even when you’re saying NO.
Create an end-of-the-workday routine, so you can stop multitasking and be present for your life at home.
Take regular breaks and trust that your staff or clients can handle things without you.
Deal calmly with any discomfort, including the guilt or anxiety that comes up when you state your policies and limits.
Start doing yoga or cooking dinner or making a scrapbook of your cats (or whatever it is that you’ve been wanting to do, but haven’t gotten around to it in a few, er, years) with your newly created free time.
Sound good? Then join us this winter and let’s get started!
It’s National Animal Shelter Appreciation Week, so I thought I’d share an older piece I wrote years ago for StubbyDog (originally published Oct. 2011) called Everyday Heroes: Shelter Workers.
They stand at the doorway each morning and take a deep breath. The dogs, recognizing that they’re no longer alone, have erupted in a cacophony of demands for food, bathroom breaks, attention.
Overwhelmed by the noise, hearts pounding, trying to pick a direction to go in first, they say, “I’m coming just as fast as I can everybody. I love you all this morning.”
And then they start running.
They weave through the chaos: an injured dog, the hysterical family of a missing elderly cat, an animal control officer with a van full of strays, new volunteers who need training, making a call to an adopter that didn’t show to pick up their new dog, setting up a safe kennel for a victim of cruelty in desperate need of medical care.
There are more dogs than there are kennels.
There are adopters to meet with, kennel cough to be treated, biographies to write, veterinarians and trainers to consult with, surgeries to find funding for, rescue groups to reach out to, social media trolls to quiet, documentation of cruelty cases to complete, baths to be given, and hard, painful choices to be made.
The daily work continues: Kennels must be scrubbed, food delivered, medications carefully administered, evaluations to be completed, kennel charts filled out, yards to be cleaned.
There are 24 hours in a day and 100+ hours of work to be done.
They feel tiny in the presence of this mountain of work and the countless souls they’ve been trusted to care for. How fast can they work, for how long, and will it make a difference?
But just when they feel like they’re slipping under water, it happens: one great day.
A long-term resident finally gets adopted, a local business stops by with a donation of a new washing machine, the dogs they feared wouldn’t make it find foster homes, a child’s birthday party brings toys and treats, an adopter calls to tell you how happy they are with their new cat, a volunteer brings coffee and hugs.
They are flying on the wings of this good day, fueled by the hope that there will be more just like it. Powering into another work week, trusting that, if they keep their heads up and their feet moving forward, it will be okay.
They are a vital part of our community. The safety net for our pets. The beating heart deep in our collective hope for a better world for our animals.
They are the magicians, the master jugglers, the contortionists, working endlessly to pull one more miracle out of their bag of tricks. One more life saved by their weary hands. They are the underpaid, overworked operators working the lines until there is a happy ending.
They are doing the work most of us could never bring ourselves to do. We depend on them to care for the animals in our families and communities. We demand more and more from them and they show up for the challenge. They are willing to take the heartbreak, the lost lives, the failures, the sadness and exhaustion. Because they know the animals can’t make it without them.
They are our determined hands, our compassionate hearts, and they need our support.
They are shelter workers and they’re everyday heroes. Be sure to thank them for their service.
p.s. I think volunteers and foster families are the bomb too and wrote tributes to them back in 2011. You can find them here and here.
But the deliberate anticipation of something fun can help us feel better and become more stress resilient. That’s because 6-8 weeks before a pleasurable event, our brains are already releasing dopamine.
The message staff gets is: If you don’t take care of yourself, it’s your fault that you have compassion fatigue.
That’s just not accurate.
To be clear, self-care IS critically important and it’s the foundation of everything I teach (because no one can take care of you for you. Sorry, no one is coming to save your ass).
I love the pants off of self-care.
But, all the self-care in the world won’t matter if:
– You have a job description that has no boundaries (how many people would it really take to accomplish everything that’s been assigned to you?) and you never have time off to DO self-care.
– Or you work in an unsafe environment (physically and/or psychologically) with low pay, no benefits, and you’re treated like an unskilled, expendable resource. “Churn and burn” baby!
– Or you have toxic coworkers and you don’t feel safe asking for help. Or a cruel boss that tells you that if you “really loved animals”, you wouldn’t need to take a break.
When organizations focus ONLY on self-care as the solution for compassion fatigue, then they get to blame staff for having compassion fatigue and wash their hands of this complex issue.
Organizations have a responsibility to create a healthy, ethical work environment where individual self-care efforts are supported and strengthened by the organization’s efforts to treat their staff like the valuable resource they are through: education, mentoring and supervision, fair policies, healthy boundaries and time off, safe equipment, appreciation, conflict resolution, mental health benefits, adequate pay, and trauma-informed support.
I’m not saying it’s easy or that organizations can make these changes overnight, but they’ve got to step up to the plate.
Addressing CF isn’t just an altruistic move. It benefits the organizations when they tackle one of the root causes of expensive issues like turnover and presenteeism.
If we want to address compassion fatigue effectively – which benefits everyone – then we always need to be looking at this issue from the individual AND the organizational level.