organization and culture

An Invitation to Leaders During Challenging Times

Would you rather listen to me read a version of this blog? Click play below:

We’re in a particularly difficult time right now in animal welfare and animal sheltering.

I’m hearing a lot of despair, panic, and hopelessness, not only from staff, but from folks in leadership roles too.

So, I wanted to offer up an invitation for leaders to consider how they’re publicly speaking about this hard time that we find ourselves in.

Here’s what I know is true:

The stories that we tell about the challenges we’re facing have the power to deplete OR sustain our resilience.

This means we need to be mindful of the way that we’re framing this difficult time whenever we’re talking with our staff or volunteers.

We can say whatever we want in private, but publicly we need to be aware of our messaging so that it helps to sustain, not drain, the people doing the work.

Research reveals that human beings have five essential needs that, when met, help us to get through and recover from adversity:

  1. Safety (physical and psychological)
  2. Calm (the ability to calm physiologically)
  3. Social support
  4. Self and collective efficacy
  5. Hopefulness (for the future)

Let’s look at those last two.

Having a sense of self and collective efficacy means we believe that we have what it takes to get through a challenge both as an individual and as part of a team, organization, or community.

We believe in our ability to cope with difficult emotions and we believe we have the technical skills to handle what we’re facing.

We have what it takes – the competence – both individually and collectively to rise to the occasion.

Hopefulness is the faith that it will be okay at some point in the future. That we’re going to be alright, even if we’re not right now.

We need leaders to bring a sense of collective efficacy and hopefulness into conversations with staff right now.

Workers need to know that we have come so far in animal sheltering and that all that progress is not going away. Even if we’re in a really tough downswing right now, even if we take temporary steps backward, it’s not going to permanently erase all the progress that we’ve made.

Do you remember what it was like 15, 25, 40 years ago in animal sheltering? In the span of a single career in this field we’ve done incredible things.

Our euthanasia rates used to be what our live release rates are now.

Not long ago there were no veterinarians trained in shelter medicine, there was no such thing as veterinary social workers. In the 1980s, the term compassion fatigue didn’t even exist, let alone the work I do!

I think back to my time in animal sheltering in 2008, during the Great Recession and the housing crash. Generally speaking, shelters weren’t adopting out pit bulls without a TON of restrictions.

We weren’t adopting out cats with FIV or treating ringworm. We didn’t have much in the way of dog play groups or robust enrichment programs or behavior departments.

Just a couple of decades ago we didn’t have a global transport network or HQHVSN clinics around the country. We didn’t have social media to market our pets.

We were just starting to build the pet owner support and surrender prevention programs that are such a huge part of our work now.

And I know there’s lots that I’m not listing here. The point is we’ve been steadily improving things for decades.

I’m not saying this in a: “Back in our day, we had it so much harder, so you need to suck it up!” kind of way.

Not at all. I’m sharing this as a reminder that we’re part of a great lineage of people who have been moving this field forward for years.

We can lean on that history.

People made those innovations happen in difficult times with very few resources and very little support. Despite the odds, they moved the field forward.

The reminder of how much we’ve accomplished – our collective past – can help sustain us in the present.

Despite how difficult things are right now, all the evidence points to us succeeding over time.

No matter how slow or nonexistent the progress seems right now, we are continuing the work.

And there is very good reason to believe that we have the competence to get through this. All of those decades of training, knowledge, programs, systems, and practices we’ve built – they didn’t just disappear.

Even if we’re not able to function at the level that we’re used to or that we wish we could right now, all of that progress is still present in the work we’re doing.

That gives me hope that it’s going to be okay at some point. I don’t know when it’s going to be okay, but I do know that everything is a cycle.

Spring always comes after winter. Day always comes after night.

Metaphorically we are in a deep winter right now. We don’t know when winter will end, but we know that spring will come.

We need to hold the hope that things are going to be okay.

That doesn’t mean that we dismiss how difficult this is.

We can ground ourselves in the current reality of how challenging things are and adjust our expectations so they’re more realistic for 2022. We need to tend to ourselves and each other, because we are hurting.

And, at the same time, we can believe in our ability to cope with this challenge and hold hope for the future.

It’s always both/and. That’s what will sustain our energy and resilience.

So that’s my invitation to all of you in leadership roles (and the rest of us): consider the way that you’re framing this challenge for your staff. They are looking to you to tell them if they’re going to be okay.

Think of how we look to flight attendants when there’s turbulence on a plane. If they’re calm, we trust that we’re going to be okay. But if they’re panicking or despairing, we know we’re going down.

As a leader if you do not model that competence and confidence for them, staff are not going to believe that they have what it takes to get through this. They will not have hope. They will have despair.

Our sense of self and collective efficacy and our hope for the future is deeply shaped by the people in our organizations with the most power and experience. It comes from the top.

Help your people see the big picture. They need to know they are part of something much larger than themselves.

No matter how hard it is right now, no matter how many temporary steps backwards we may take, ultimately, our collective efforts always add up to make a positive impact.

We will continue to move our mission forward.

Spring is going to come again.

I believe in all of you. I know we can get through it.

I know this because we have decades of evidence that proves we have always found a way forward. Always.

You’re pretty amazing, you know that?

The 3 Drama Roles We All Play (And How To Stop)

If I know one thing to be true, it’s that a lot of us are struggling with unwanted DRAMA in our lives right now. 

And I’m not talking about the “Which teammate did they turn into jerky when they were stranded in the wilderness for 19 months?” Yellowjackets kind of drama.

Are you watching that show yet?! Because I can wait if you want to quick watch the whole season and then finish reading this. 

I’m talking about the kind of DRAMA that pops off every day when you work in emotionally-charged environments, populated by overwhelmed employees, stressed animals, and agitated members of the public, like veterinary clinics and animal shelters. 

So I wanted to share something called the Dreaded Drama Triangle (DDT), a tool developed by psychiatrist Stephen Karpman, because it helps me a lot.

The DDT consists of 3 main drama personas that people take on (and can switch between) when we’re in stressful, emotional or high-conflict situations. 

The three drama personas are Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor.*

* In this model we’re talking about victimhood and rescuing as a form of identity, not situations in which someone is the real victim of crime, racism, abuse, etc. or when we rescue an animal in need. To be clear, this model is never about victim-blaming. 

A quick way to sum up these three personas are:

  • The Victim: “Poor me, it’s not my fault!” 
  • The Rescuer: “Poor you, let me help!” 
  • The Persecutor: “You’re a poor excuse for a human!” 

Once we’re hooked into the DDT we end up playing all three of these positions whether we like it or not, because that’s the nature of the triangle.

Here’s an example of how we can move around the different positions on the DDT:

“I was just trying to be helpful when I offered up that advice (Rescuer), but they got irritated with me for no reason (Victim), so I told them point blank they were doing it wrong and needed to listen to me (Persecutor), and then they complained to my boss, so now I’m in trouble. Why does this stuff always happen to me? (Victim).”

Here’s the nutty part: Rescuers and Persecutors don’t even have to be people.

They can also be a situation or condition like illness, being short-staffed, or even ways we numb out aka rescuing ourselves by using food or Netflix. 

And get this, we can be all three personas in conversations with ourselves. 

If you’ve ever been super critical of yourself (“I’m such an idiot!”) then you’ve met your inner Persecutor. 

There’s nothing wrong with you if you experience these three drama personas. We all do, myself included!

And the Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor can be very appropriate in certain situations. 

But fundamentally these drama personas function as a way to help us temporarily cope with our fears and anxieties. 

There’s a short term payoff for each position on the DDT: 

  • Victims get to be taken care of and avoid responsibility
  • Rescuers get to feel important for being the hero
  • Persecutors get to feel powerful and in control

But the long-term cost is that we perpetuate dysfunctional social dynamics and miss out on the chance to create healthy relationships and sustained positive change in our organizations and our lives.

We keep wasting our energy reacting to the drama, instead of truly solving the problems.

So what do we do about it?

We get off the DDT when we calm ourselves down enough to witness these patterns, without reacting to them, and then choose to shift our focus. 

That’s where The Empowerment Dynamic akaTED* created by David Emerald comes into play.

In this alternate model, there are 3 new empowered personas we can shift to: Creator, Coach, and Challenger:


Source: David Emerald, The Center for Empowerment Dynamic
  • Creators take responsibility for their thoughts and actions and focus on creating desired outcomes
  • Coaches ask meaningful questions, develop and honor healthy boundaries, and encourage others
  • Challengers become catalysts for growth by compassionately holding others and themselves accountable in order to support learning

If you want to start using the DDT and TED* as a tool in your own life, begin by noticing when you may be playing the role of Victim, Rescuer or Persecutor.

Pay attention to what triggers you and how those triggers put you on the DDT with people you work with or your family.

Just noticing that you’re on the DDT is a powerful place to start. You can’t change what you don’t notice!

And you may want to check out David Emerald’s book: The Power of TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic)

This has been such a helpful framework for me that I just did an intensive training with David and became a Certified 3 Vital Questions Trainer so that I can use the DDT and TED* tools more effectively with my clients.

Speaking of which…

Want to learn more?

This week in The Compassionate Badassery Lab we’re going to break down the Drama Triangle and how to get out of it using The 3 Vital Questions.

You can join us as a monthly member and attend the webinar with us live on Thursday 2/17 at 8pm ET. Or you can watch the recording any time afterwards.

Self-Care Is Not The Solution for Burnout

In the second half of 2021 I sent out a survey to find out what your organizations and managers have done right since the pandemic began.

More specifically, I wanted to hear what helped you to feel less stressed and how your leaders and supervisors demonstrated they cared about your wellbeing. 

Thank you to everyone who took the time to respond!

Some clear themes emerged in your answers that are worth sharing.

In no particular order, this is what you, the workers, appreciated and want more of:

  1. Consistent, transparent communication
  2. Flexibility 
  3. Appreciation  
  4. Sustaining pay and benefits
  5. Authentic concern/care

No one said they wanted their organization to provide more yoga.

And that’s where the inspiration for our next book highlight comes from…

This month we have an excerpt from the 2021 book The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Fix It by Jennifer Moss:

“If you want to address the burnout problem, the first step is repeating and internalizing this mantra:

Burnout is about your organization, not your people.

Yoga, vacation time, wellness tech, and meditation apps can help people feel optimised, healthier. But when it comes to preventing burnout, suggesting that these tools are the cure is dangerous…

We can no longer suggest wellness strategies that place ownership on individuals for preventing and managing their own burnout.

Instead, we need to look at ourselves as leaders, at the role our organizations play….

Burnout is most often triggered by [one or a combination of]:

  1. Workload
  2. Perceived lack of control
  3. Lack of recognition and rewards 
  4. Poor relationships
  5. Lack of fairness 
  6. Values mismatch 

The roots of burnout are often associated with poor [organizational] hygiene.

Basic needs must be met…paying people what they’re worth and on time; they feel physically and mentally safe; everyone knows what they’re doing or can get access to tools and resources if they don’t; people get along – you know, the basics.

When people are complaining, we shouldn’t assume they’re being ungrateful or whiny and dismiss them.

We need to say, “How can we help?”

Andinstead of asking, “What do I do about burnout?” 
we need toask, “How do we create a better, healthier workplace for people, so they don’t burn out?”

It’s all about intervening upstream.”

For me, this passage is helpful because it reminds me that:

(1) The standard advice for fixing burnout is incorrect and harmful. Self-care isn’t the answer (it’s a helpful addition

(2) The current state of turmoil in animal sheltering and vet med has been exacerbated by the pandemic AND burnout is nothing new in our field.

Our approach has always been to downplay and ignore the needs of our workers. As in, “If you really care about the animals, you’ll suck it up.”

(3) We’re great at reactively trying to address burnout with short term fixes, but we’re allergic to root cause solutions: basic organizational hygiene overhauls that could actually solve this problem. 

Look, I’m not saying that addressing burnout during a pandemic and the Great Quit is easy.

I’m saying the opposite.

If we want to actually solve this issue, it will be a challenging, multi-year process. 

In the meantime, listen to workers and do the following right now:

  • Say thank you! A lot. Be authentic. Positive reinforcement works
  • Communicate transparently: Gaps in communication cause stress, so it’s better to say “I don’t know” then to stay silent
  • Be flexible about schedule and workload so your staff can meet the ever-changing demands in their personal lives
  • Check-in often, so they know you care, and encourage boundaries and self-care, so they know it’s okay to do those things
  • Pay them more ASAP and if that’s not possible, do what you can to give them more PTO or other benefits ASAP

Which one of those items is most doable right now? Most of them cost nothing. Pick one, make a plan to address it, and then do it. 

If you’re looking for strategies to help you address burnout in your workplace, this book is an excellent resource. You can find a copy here.

It’s Time Animal Welfare Adopted a Trauma-Informed Care Approach

“To be truly visionary, we have to root our imagination in our concrete reality while simultaneously imagining possibilities beyond that reality.” – bell hooks

It’s National Mental Health Week which seems like a good time to explore what many experts have declared is the public health crisis of our time: trauma.

Specifically, I’d like to look at the organization’s role in actively reducing the traumatization of staff in the workplace.

I’m talking about trauma-informed care (TIC).

Trauma-informed care is a model of care that acknowledges the widespread impact of trauma amongst all populations and creates an environment of awareness and understanding for those that have been affected by trauma.

Those that have been affected by trauma include: the people in our communities who we support through our services AND the people in our communities who work within our organizations. 

Why bother with TIC you ask?

Trauma impacts more people than not.

  • For example, the majority of Americans report having at least one adverse childhood experience before the age of 18 (such as abuse, neglect, divorce, etc.).
  • People who work in helping professions typically experience vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress – which refers to the impact of indirect exposure to difficult, disturbing and/or traumatic images and stories of the suffering of others – at some point in their careers. They may also experience direct trauma on the job as well. 
  • We have all been exposed to toxic stress and trauma due to the COVID-19 pandemic, along with increased racial violence and political unrest (that isn’t to say we’ve all been impacted to the same degree – we have not – just that we’ve all been impacted).

To spare you 2000 words, I’m not going to go into a detailed explanation of trauma, but if you’d like to understand trauma better, here’s a good free webinar.

What’s important for us to consider is that trauma can lead to such mental health and co-occurring disorders as chronic diseases, substance use disorder, clinical depression, anxiety disorders, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder.

People who have experienced trauma may feel isolated, powerless, or helpless in their relationships and environments. Trauma may also cause feelings of shame, blame, fear, and guilt. Trauma can also be exacerbated by environmental factors, such as triggers in our workplace.

And trauma can weaken a person’s ability to regulate stress, creating a heightened physiological reaction to triggers, and sensitizing them to future trauma, thereby increasing their chances of developing a mental health disorder.

Consider the professional ramifications of that last sentence.

How might a person’s ability to regulate stress effectively have an impact on their performance and interactions with other people within high-stress, trauma-exposed work environments like animal shelters?

Remember that trauma exposure is happening AT work and is ongoing. So no matter what happened to them before staff walked through the doors, their experience of secondary and vicarious trauma ON the job is likely going to impact their ability to DO their jobs well. 

Let me speak plainly: our people are hurting. Their unhealed trauma ripples out and hurts the people and animals they serve (and one another). 

Like the old saying goes, “Hurt people hurt people.” 

Trauma (at work and home) is a root cause of so many of the issues that the field of animal welfare struggles to address decade after decade:

  • Why are our adoption counselors having such a hard time with open, barrier-free adoptions?
  • Why do they take behavior euthanasia decisions so hard?
  • Why do they cross lines with people they’re supporting in community outreach programs?
  • Why are they struggling to implement DEI training?
  • Why are they so resistant to change and polarized in their thinking?
  • Why do we have so much conflict between staff? Between staff and volunteers? Between staff and the public? Between rescue groups and shelters?
  • Why does our staff struggle to regulate their emotions?
  • Why do they over identify with the animals and their pain?

Look, I’m not saying it’s the ONLY cause for these issues. And I’m not making any excuses for harmful behavior. 

But it is a root cause that we have NEVER addressed through thoughtful, non-reactive, organization-level approaches.

We’ve definitely tried individual approaches (Use the Employee Assistance Program! Do some yoga!) and those are important, but as we’ve seen (and the research backs up) they’re ineffective on their own.

Environment matters.

Given the intensity of the past 1.5 years and that we’ve had to reinvent how we work and live, this is the ideal time to start learning about Trauma Informed Care practices.

Other fields, such as human social services, have already paved the TIC-way in terms of how to create healthier workplaces, in which staff are better supported, thereby reducing the risk that they will cause harm to the animals and people they serve in their communities.

We do not need to reinvent the wheel. We can learn from experts in other fields.

Here are some basics:

SAMHSA uses a four Rs rubric to describe a “trauma-informed” organization, program, or system:

Realize the widespread impact of trauma and understand potential paths for recovery;

Recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system;

Respond by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and

Actively resist re-traumatization.

The 6 core principles of any trauma-informed approach are:

  1. Safety
  2. Trustworthiness + transparency
  3. Peer support
  4. Collaboration + mutuality
  5. Empowerment, voice, + choice
  6. Cultural, historical + gender issues

Organizations that integrate trauma-informed principles and strategies into their policies and procedures are better able to ensure that their workplace is culturally competent and trauma-informed for both staff and community members.

Organizations don’t shift to a TIC approach overnight. This is a long, slow, thoughtful process that typically takes place over the course of years.

There is no quick fix for this issue. We’re getting at the foundations of organizational health.
It’s not something we tackle in a lunch and learn. It’s not something we understand by reading a blog post shot off by someone who took a mental health first aid training (ahem, that’s me).

We’re not turning around a speedboat. We’re trying to turn around a freight ship in the Suez Canal. Not impossible, but it’s not happening quickly either.

The Missouri Model recommends the following four steps to becoming a trauma-informed organization:

Awareness: Organization becomes aware of how prevalent trauma is and its impact on workers, clients, and business outcomes.

Sensitivity: Organization begins to understand trauma-informed principles, causes, expressions and possible ways to overcome problems that affect workers and business.

Response: Organization begins to implement changes that affect culture, routines, and human resource processes to eliminate triggers.

Informed: Organization begins to implement trauma-informed practices and monitoring the impacts of changes made to policies and practices.

Here are some examples of trauma-informed strategies that can be implemented at the organizational level:

  • Involve community members in the planning and development of programs that impact them.
  • Educate all staff on the effects of trauma and a basic understanding of how trauma affects an individual’s mind and body
  • Promote opportunities for staff development, connection, and self-care.
  • Collaborate with staff on the development of organizational policies.
  • Prioritize the creation of a safe, supportive environment that minimizes environmental triggers.

One simple (but not easy) way to begin our shift towards a trauma-informed approach would be to reframe the question “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”

We already do this for the animals. Now it’s time to do it for the humans in our workplaces.

So, if we’re talking about mental health this week, we would do well to acknowledge one thing that’s “happened” to our staff is ongoing exposure to trauma on and off the job, coupled with some pretty unhealthy workplaces. 

Because when it comes to mental health, environment matters. 

This is a very brief look at a complex topic. If you’d like to learn more, please see the free resources linked below:

SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach

A Trauma-Informed Approach to Workforces

Blueprint for a Vicarious Trauma-Informed Organization

In addition, we’ve just added more spots to my upcoming Compassion Fatigue Strategies Plus course, in which we’ll discuss this topic further. Class starts on 10/18 and you can register here.

To be clear, I’m not an expert in Trauma-Informed Care. But I know people who are! I’m part of a group that’s currently working to create an online learning event around trauma-informed care this winter, so can learn directly from the experts on this topic. More info about that in a couple of months.

Can You Take a Vacation in a Pandemic?

Two weeks ago I was on vacation. It was my first week off since Christmas.

The longer I go without a vacation, the longer the vacation needs to be for me to benefit from it.

So this year I took two-ish weeks off.

The first week I was at home, working at about 15% of my normal load, taking care of things like doctor’s appointments and car repairs, with lots of time for Zoom calls with long distance friends.

I pumped the breaks on work, gradually stepping back over 5 days to help my nervous system and brain slow down and disconnect from screens.

The goal: to be fully present and enjoy the second week of vacation at a house in the woods with my family.

And not to get sick. 

In the past, I’ve jammed on the breaks to take a week off.

And for years, I crashed. Hard.

Not only would I spend the first few days of my vacation tired AND wired, but by mid-week I almost always got sick. My body knew it was a “good” time to fall apart.

Years later, I know I need to pump the brakes ahead of time, so that I can enter my “real” vacation healthy enough to benefit from it.

Which I did earlier this month.

And I STILL slept 8 hours a night and took an hour long nap every afternoon. I had no idea I was so tired.

But I’m not surprised. 2020 has been one problem, heartache, emergency, and horror after another.

We are all tired.

And most of us aren’t taking enough time to rest (for lots of reasons).

We have a troubled relationship with vacation time in America. In 2018, 768 million US vacation days went unused.

That’s in a “normal” year. Who knows what it will look like in 2020?

Recently, I gave a webinar for a shelter and the staff shared privately that they felt like they were being judged (by leadership and peers) for wanting to take their designated breaks and vacation time.

They were trying to take care of themselves, but didn’t feel psychologically safe enough to do it.

That’s a good example of how individual self-care can only take root when it’s supported by workplace culture and policies.

I’ve also spoken to a number of shelter workers lately who feel that because they or their staff had a month off in March or April (due to COVID), they “shouldn’t” need a vacation now.

I disagree. Here’s why:

1. Being furloughed or laid off isn’t a vacation. It’s time off, but it’s unplanned, maybe even unpaid, and it was at the start of a traumatic global pandemic.

My husband was laid off for 7 months this past year (starting before COVID). And while I was definitely envious of his (partially) paid time off, I also knew that being involuntarily out of work was not a vacation for him, it was stressful.

Furloughs and layoffs = uncertainty = stress. 

2. One break a year isn’t enough. March was 6 months ago. We’re due for another rest. Why do we (I’m looking at us Americans) think we only need one vacation a year? How has that been working for us so far?  

Most EU countries are required to offer a minimum of 20 paid days off annually. That allows for multiple weeks off a year. America? We’re not required, federally, to offer even ONE paid day off a year. No wonder so many people can’t take time to rest. It’s a choice between vacation and paying rent. 

Fortunately, many employers do offer some paid time off. But we’re not using it.

Why? Because we feel like it’s not safe – either because of our workplace culture or because our nervous systems are so jacked up on stress from working 51 weeks straight that trying to slow down is physically painful for us.

3. This year has not been business as usual. Wildfires, COVID, racial violence, a contentious election, and who knows what’s next (fingers crossed for an asteroid-free fall!)? When stress is this high, for this long, we need to double down on our rest.

People need to “come off the front lines” for regular, extended R&R, so they don’t burn out. 

Even Mother Teresa understood this. Rumor has it she recommended that her nuns take an entire year off every 4-5 years to allow themselves to heal from the effects of their caregiving work.

Surely we can figure out a way to let our people take regular time to heal too? We cannot expect them to keep going like this without consequences. At a minimum we’re looking at high turnover and a reduction in the quality of services being offered. 

When I got back from vacation my energy was restored. Yes, it felt a little weird to take a vacation when the world is in crisis. But stepping back helps me to keep stepping up. 

After vacation I’m excited about supporting others this fall because I’m operating from a surplus, instead of a deficit. 

You know, we’re spreading more than just COVID right now. We’re spreading our emotions, our stress, our perspective on the world.

When you’re well-rested, it ripples out to positively impact every life you touch. So do it for yourself or do it for those you care for, but please: take a break. 

Look, I know it’s complicated with small staffs and small budgets, not to mention layoffs looming, but I hope you’ll at least consider it.

Or talk with your people (or yourself!) about how it’s OK to take a vacation in a pandemic, even if they had time off in the spring.

And if you’re pushing your staff (or yourself!) to work even harder right now and they haven’t had a break in months, just beware.

ZOMBIES are coming.

Your work – your organization’s services – will benefit from having well-rested humans who can show up with energy and enthusiasm again.

It’s a win-win for everyone, including the animals. 

Grief at Work: What Does a Grief-Competent Workplace Look Like?

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

Have you read the “ball in the box” description of grief?

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.

No matter where you work please don’t miss this amazing interview with psychotherapist Francis Weller.

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!

4 Ways to Build Healthier Organizational Boundaries

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 Overwhelm reminds 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.

From Sarri Gilman’s Naming and Taming Overwhelm

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.

Sit down and come up with humane job descriptions. That goes for leadership as well. How “doable” is your job?

2. Neutralize taking breaks.

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.


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:

  1. Establishing your boundary, by focusing on the behavior you do want.
  2. Clarifying the policy, by focusing on the behavior the organization wants.
  3. Explaining what the consequences will be for not doing the positive behavior.
  4. 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!

Further reading: Setting Boundaries at Work by Penn Behavioral Health

How to handle employees who are relentless boundary pushers

What Happened When I Couldn’t Complain for 5 Days

My native language is complaining. I’m also fluent in Bitching, Moaning, Whining, and I speak a passable Kvetching.

So, when a boatload of articles about the negative impact of complaining started coming across my path this year, I tuned in. Essentially, every article was some variation on this theme: complaining keeps us in a negative mindset, feeling like victims, and trains us to be hyper alert to noticing the bad in any situation. Complaining may feel good for a moment, but long term it leaves us feeling worse.

Francoise Mathieu, author of The Compassion Fatigue Workbook, refers to bitching, moaning, and whining (the BMWs) as a “fake workout.”

In other words, complaining is the equivalent of sitting on the couch watching someone else workout on TV. At the end, you’re exactly the same as you were before you watched.

Complaining is the same – we feel like we’re doing something because we’re actively talking and discharging energy – but in the end, there are no real results. You may even feel worse.

In many workplaces (and I am mega-guilty of this) complaining becomes the primary way that we communicate with and connect to one another.

Truth is, there’s a lot to complain about in our work and the state of the world. But there’s a difference between taking action to make things better (which includes healthy coping through supportive conversations) and the false sense of action or release that we get from complaining.

One gets results, the other trains us to keep focusing on what’s broken and sucks the life out of us.

Focus on solving or coping with the problem instead.

When complaining is our primary way of experiencing and communicating about the world, it’s like our mind gets stuck tuned into one toxic radio station run by a troll.

Let’s call it WSUXS (thanks for the inspiration Anne Lamott!).

Not too long ago, I went on a 5 day silent meditation retreat. This meant no talking or direct eye contact with other people was allowed. Silent meals, silent meditation, silent everything…except inside your own head. It’s really loud in your own mind.

As if that’s not hard enough, I soon discovered that my room was directly across from the communal bathrooms and I was kept awake half the night by noise coming from across the hall.

That’s when WSUXS started broadcasting loud and clear.

“Why can’t people close the door more quietly?” “Why did I get this crappy room?” “This isn’t fair.” “Is that sewage I smell?”  “I never should have come here.” “Meditation is dumb.” “This SUCKS.”

I found myself physically aching to complain to the woman who was staying in the room next to me, knowing she was likely experiencing the same nightly torture.

For two days I had imaginary conversations in my head with my neighbor about the noise and our stinky rooms. But I wasn’t allowed to talk to her. I couldn’t even make eye contact with her as we walked into our adjoining rooms – no eye roll with a knowing head tilt towards the bathroom.

At night, I found myself having imaginary conversations with my husband and friends. They’d ask me how the retreat went and I’d tell them about the bathrooms! How gross, they’ll say. So disappointing, they’ll commiserate. Vindication!

And then something weird happened. Two days of WSUXS and I couldn’t take it anymore.

Not the bathrooms…

I couldn’t stand my own negative thoughts for one more minute.

I was boring myself. I was making myself miserable.

I didn’t want this unique experience that I was having at the retreat to be defined by my complaints.

So I decided to stop.

Thanks to my mindfulness practices, every time I became aware that WSUXS was coming on in my head, I noticed it, acknowledged it with an inner smile (Hello again you old crank!), and then I turned the volume down by placing my attention on something else, like my breath.

By day three WSUXS was just static in the background. I hardly heard it anymore.

Nothing changed externally. The bathrooms still stunk. I still had a hard time sleeping.

But internally, I was changing the way I was relating to my experience, letting go of what I couldn’t change or fix, so that I could be at peace.

I was able to do this to a large degree because I didn’t speak my complaints out loud. I did not feed the troll.

If I had been able to talk to my neighbor, we would have turned up the dial on WSUXS to 11 and blown the roof off of that place. The complaint, and the negative energy within it, would have grown stronger as we discussed it.

But since we couldn’t talk about it, we didn’t feed energy into and it faded away without sucking us dry.

What I learned in my five days of silence is that where we place our focus – our attention – is also where our energy will go. And that really matters. It shapes our entire lives. If we’re always looking for and talking about what sucks, then that will define our experience.

Our life becomes a WSUXS marathon. 

Now, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t things worth getting upset about or that we should bottle up our feelings. But there’s constructive talk where you feel upset about an issue, policy, or person’s behavior and then you either take action to address that issue directly with the person who is responsible or you cope with your feelings in a healthy way. And then there’s complaining as a primary way to discharge your discomfort, but which ultimately leads to little change and a whole lot of toxicity.

This is especially true at work. We complain and feed into that negative energy, which only reinforces our focus on what’s going wrong, rather than what we will do to change it, let go of it, or what’s also going well.

The more we talk about it, the more power we give the complaint and the more we wire our brains to see everything through the lens of WSUXS.

So what can you do?

Mathieu writes in her book Compassion Fatigue Workbook, that she and a couple of friends at work deliberately decided to stop gossiping and complaining about work for 3 months. She reports that the, “…results were striking. We were not necessarily successful at changing our dysfunctional workplace, but we were no longer part of the toxicity and that significantly improved my work experience.”

Lauren Glickman wrote a great article about experimenting with going complaint-free for Animal Sheltering magazine. You can check that out here.

Turning down the dial on complaining is one way you can improve the quality of your life right now, even if things are far from ideal. As Trauma Stewardship author, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, wrote, “Nothing has to change in the world for us to transform our own life experience.”

nothing has to change


More on this topic:

How to Complain Less

Why Complaining is Literally Killing You

What It’s Like to Go Without Complaining for a Month


Finally, you have the power to make small, but meaningful changes that can improve the quality of your life, no matter what’s going on at work. Really. I know there are so many issues that need to be fixed, policies that need to be changed, people that need to behave differently, and resources that need to be increased! And yet, even if none of those external factors change, you can still transform your own life experience. My online courses are designed to help people who work with animals improve quality of their lives and reduce the impact of compassion fatigue. Join us!


Intro to Debriefing: 4 Ways to Manage Compassion Fatigue

Recently, I spoke with a friend who has worked in animal sheltering for nearly a decade. I wanted to know how she manages her compassion fatigue. She shared that her connection to others, specifically regular debriefing with her supervisor, has been a big part in staying healthy over the years.

She also mentioned helpful advice from Doug Fakkema, a pioneer in compassion fatigue education and humane euthanasia practices. Fakkema counsels shelter workers to never let more than 48 hours go by after performing a euthanasia before talking to someone about what you’ve experienced.

Connection and story sharing are effective tools to help us manage compassion fatigue. As professional helpers, we’re exposed to trauma, loss, and death every single day. Too many of us are carrying around the accumulated stories and emotions of our work days, without a healthy outlet to express, process, and release what we’ve witnessed or experienced. But we need to share in skillful ways or we’ll amplify difficult emotions.

This is where various kinds of debriefing come in handy. Here are four ways we can incorporate healthy sharing into our work and personal lives:

Get the updated PDF to read the rest of this blog.

7 Ways We Can Support Mental Health in the Animal Welfare Community

“Look how involved we all are just under the surface, and let’s try to help each other.” 

– Jennifer Michael Hecht

Doing animal welfare work is intense emotional labor. It takes a toll on every single one of us working to meet the needs of animals and people who are suffering, traumatized, and in need of our ongoing compassionate care.

We can and must take daily actions to care for ourselves as we engage in this challenging work. Only we can take care of ourselves. No one else can do that for us.

But we also need each other. We need the support and understanding that only people who do this unique work can offer one another. We can’t thrive in isolation. Connection is critical to our health.

The quality of that connection matters. For example, research reveals that having coworkers who are supportive and collaborative can increase our compassion satisfaction levels, which helps to lower compassion fatigue.

The flip side of that coin is to acknowledge that we are also capable of, and often do, cause each other as much pain as the work itself does.

Rather than feed into an environment of horizontal violence, we can instead choose to create a culture that supports well-being and where our values of compassion towards animals extends to the human animals around us as well. Even when we disagree with each other, we can choose to reduce the amount of harm we inflict on ourselves and those around us.

Here are just a few ideas for supporting mental health in our community:

1. Stop bullying. The hateful comments attacking individuals and organizations that are being posted on Facebook and beyond aren’t benign or helpful. They are causing extreme suffering in our community.

Our actions can create painful conditions for others which may have a serious impact on their mental health. Let me put it this way: Suicide is often the result of multiple risk factors and while there is no particular set risk factors that accurately predicts imminent danger of suicide, there are a number of stressful situations or events that may increase the likelihood of a suicide attempt or death, such as: a previous suicide attempt, extreme loss, harassment, an active suicide cluster in a community, mental illness, bullying, isolation, and severe stress.

While we can’t control if someone has a mental illness, we can control our own actions and make the choice not to bully or harass others, no matter how much we disagree with them.

Before you post a nasty comment do this: Pause. Take a deep breath. Direct your awareness inward. What are you feeling right now? Pain? Sadness? Anger? Hopelessness? When we lash out it’s often an attempt to pass the pain along and avoid our own difficult emotions.

What pain is the bullying and trolling temporarily numbing out for you?

Take responsibility for yourself. Feel your emotions. Be sad. Be angry. Have compassion for your own suffering. You will do less harm to yourself and others if you process your emotions. Then use your energy to make concrete positive changes for animals in your corner of the world.

2. Organize peer support groups. We need to talk about what we experience at work on a regular basis, so that we can process and let go of what we see and do in a healthy and constructive way. We understand each other’s trauma and sorrow. Friends, family, and others may be traumatized or have a hard time understanding our work. We can’t expect them to be the only source of support for us or be able to listen to our stories each day.

Form a support group that meets weekly or monthly. You can do it online with peers in your field or at work (managers, make sure there is time for this). Bring in a counselor to facilitate one or more sessions to help you get started. Connect with professionals, mentors, managers, and peers who can bear witness and help you process both the details, but even more importantly, your feelings about your work.

Learn four different ways to debrief, including what managers need to know about having a critical incident debriefing plan.

Here’s some advice on creating a peer support group.

Also of note: In Defense of Animals has a free support hotline for animal rights activists.

animal welfare mental health

3. Help create healthy boundaries. Can’t stop thinking about work even when you’re off the clock? We can help ourselves and others by creating a ritual to download and decompress before we leave work.

Here’s one way to do that: Jackie Burke, clinical director of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia recommends meeting with your boss, a supportive work peer who is still on the clock, or a notebook to talk or write about the upsetting things that happened that day and what you will do to try to feel ok about it, before you go home.

Do this every day. Record your feelings related to the work day before you punch out (literally or figuratively, if you work at a home-based rescue). The goal is immediate reflection to avoid repression of the traumatic content you’ve accumulated all day and to avoid getting stuck in rumination later.

Organizations also need to step up their boundary game, so that staff can care for themselves. Read more here.

4. Be #StigmaFree. Help break down the misinformation and stigma around mental illness and seeking mental health help. Mental illnesses, such as depression and PTSD, are not the result of personal weakness.

1 in 5 adults in America lives with a mental health condition and suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. So many of us are suffering. No one should feel alone, shamed, or stigmatized.

Mental health, just like physical health, exists on a continuum. At one time or another, due to many factors, all of us will need a doctor’s help to maintain or treat our physical body. It’s the same with our mental health! Many of us would benefit from having some outside help from a professional to support our emotional well-being. There’s no shame in that, just like there’s no shame in having strep throat and seeing your physician for treatment.

We can break down stigmas by sharing our own experiences and resources. If you have a great therapist that understands your work with animals, let your coworkers and friends know that you are receiving help in this way and share your counselor’s number. Make sure your staff knows about their mental health benefits and if they don’t have any, see what you can do to fix that. Let those around you know that you understand what they’re going through, that they’re not alone, and that help is available.

Learn how to be a light in the darkness.

5. Get proactive about your own mental health. This work is so tough. Although compassion fatigue is a normal consequence of the work we do – it is not a mental illness – many of us would benefit from some extra support at one time or another.

Do some research and get help now, before you are in crisis. It’s smart and courageous to get yourself into therapy or reach out to a pastor or counselor while you are still pretty much OK. You can start by investigating what your insurance does or doesn’t cover and researching therapists in your area that have experience with secondary traumatic stress or the human-animal bond.

Set yourself up with support today, which will not only help you stay well, but if the poop does hit the fan in the future, you’ll already have someone competent in your corner. Be aware that you may not find the right therapist the first go around. It’s a relationship and you may need to meet a few people before you find the right match for yourself.

Get your mental health plan in place now.

Here are some resources for getting help:

Look up therapists on or

A Beginner’s Guide to Therapy

6. Create a martyr-free zone. Suffering is not a competitive sport. Animal welfare doesn’t need any more self-sacrificing heroes. The people I admire most are the ones who recognize their limits and commit to taking care of themselves, so that they can perform ethical, effective work for the long haul.

Instead of bragging about not sleeping or being too busy to care for ourselves, let’s encourage each other and our staff to take bathroom and lunch breaks, vacations, and make regular visits to the doctor or the gym. No guilt trips or unnecessary interruptions when others are off the clock or need to say “no.” We can can celebrate limits, rest, and renewal, knowing that this investment in ourselves is what allows us to show up and do great work for many years to come.

Let’s put an end to praising and promoting poor quality of life. We can be well and do good. In fact, we must do both. We’ll save more lives (including our own) that way…

7. Increase understanding of suicide prevention. Many people are uncomfortable with the topic of suicide. But too many of us are taking our own lives, so we must talk about it openly. If it’s left hidden in secrecy, then we can’t implement effective prevention. Let’s commit to dispelling the myths around suicide, understanding the risk factors, and increasing our competency in helping to prevent suicides.

Get familiar with the warning signs, know how to take action, and always remember that connection – knowing that someone out there sees and cares about us – makes a major difference.

Going back to #1: your actions matter. Suicide prevention is up to all of us.

Resources for prevention training:

QPR Institute

A state by state guide to suicide prevention trainings and resources

A comprehensive list of gaterkeeper programs

Important numbers to know if you or someone you know is having suicidal ideations:

911: call if an attempt has been made, a weapon is present, and/or the person is out of control.

800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 24-7 help that’s anonymous, connecting you to local resources that can help if you or someone you know is in crisis.

State crisis hotlines: Research your local hotline numbers. For example, there is Maine Crisis Hotline answered 24-7 with crisis workers who are mobile and can go to any site that is safe.

These are all steps that we can take to increase positive conditions and support mental health in our community.

We all need to make an effort to shift to a more healthy and positive workplace culture, which includes characteristics such as: providing support for one another, offering kindness and compassion when others are struggling, avoiding blame and forgiving mistakes, and treating one another with respect, gratitude, trust, and integrity.

Let’s make a commitment to one another to help create a culture, within the larger animal welfare community and in our daily work, that promotes health, wellness, and respect for each other. Because we’re all in this together.

What else can we do? Tell me in the comments.

Let's stay connected. Sign up for ideas, updates, and your free copy of The ABCs of Self Care Workbook!