Recently I was interviewed by RadioMD about compassion fatigue and animal welfare workers. The interview, only 10 minutes long, is a very quick introduction to compassion fatigue which might be helpful to you if you’re looking for some basic information.
You can listen to it here.
To help round out the interview (seriously, 10 minutes goes by in a flash when you’re talking about a BIG subject like this!), here are some answers to a handful of Frequently Asked Questions people often toss my way:
What is compassion fatigue? What are some common signs and symptoms?
Compassion fatigue is the physical and emotional exhaustion that arises from the constant demand to be compassionate and effective in helping those in need and who are suffering. It’s the natural consequence of the stress from doing the emotional labor of helping animals and people who are in need.
Dr. Rachel Remen has said that “The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.”
And that’s the truth – we can’t do this work and not experience some emotional wear and tear. Compassion fatigue is an occupational hazard. So there’s nothing wrong with you if you experience it. You’re not broken. It’s a normal reaction to the work that we do. Most of us will experience CF at one time or another in our careers. There is no shame in that. Once we understand this, we can take steps to help ourselves.
What are the signs and symptoms?
Compassion fatigue looks different for each one of us. So my symptoms might be different than yours. A few common signs of CF are:
- Physical and emotional exhaustion
- Isolating ourselves from others
- Anger and irritability
- Sleep problems – like insomnia and hypersomnia
- Bottled up emotions
- Persistent physical ailments
- Inability to embrace complexity
- Using substances to numb out or self-medicate: drugs, alcohol, food, etc.
- Workaholism – taking on more and more work and responsibility and blurring boundaries (common at the onset of CF)
- A reduced ability to feel empathy and compassion for others and ourselves. Being disconnected and desensitized – it’s the opposite of the very qualities that brought us to the work in the first place (common in experienced caregivers)
Here’s a PDF with basic info regarding compassion fatigue definitions and symptoms.
Are there any unique challenges that animal care workers face that contribute to their experience of CF?
While animal care workers have a lot in common with other helping professionals – they do have one unique factor that contributes to compassion fatigue which is euthanasia. No other helping professional is tasked with ending the lives of those they care for.
Look, no one gets into the business of helping animals because we want to end their lives, so euthanasia causes a lot of distress for us and on different levels: moral distress, primary trauma, and secondary traumatic stress.
It’s a common myth that only people who perform euthanasia in high numbers can be affected by CF. While euthanasia techs have been shown to have high levels of CF and burnout, you don’t have to be the one performing the euthanasia to experience CF for two reasons:
One, it’s an ever-present aspect of the work that all of us are doing. Euthanasia is a major issue in our workplaces and in the wider animal welfare community. Two, no matter what your job duties entail – from the front desk at a shelter to the ACO in the field – we’re engaged in helping those who are in need. That means CF is an occupational hazard for all of us.
What can animal care workers and other helping professionals due to manage the impact of compassion fatigue in their lives?
The first step to managing the impact of CF starts with understanding what it is and learning to recognize how it’s affecting you personally. We can’t do anything about it, if we aren’t aware of what it looks and feels like. The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project by Patricia Smith has some great information and the book When Helping Hurts about CF in the veterinary professions is also very helpful. Read a book, hire someone to do a workshop at your organization, etc.
In addition to understanding and acknowledging CF, we need to assess our own levels of stress and self-care. Often, we spend all of our time and energy caring for others, and we leave ourselves with absolutely nothing leftover to take care of ourselves. Learning how to set limits and create healthy boundaries, so that we have enough time and energy for daily self-care and stress management is critically important.
When we’re suffering from CF, the quality of work can become compromised, which means we can cause harm to others. So we’re ethically obligated to take care of ourselves. It’s not optional. Caring for ourselves is not indulgent or selfish. Authentic self-care fills us back up each day, so we have something to give.
Try to do something each day that allows you to be present with yourself, such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, singing, dancing – anything that allows you to detox from your day and create a sense of groundedness to help carry you forward. Create some internal space for yourself.
And finally researchers have shown that social support is of huge importance when it comes to managing compassion fatigue. We tend to isolate ourselves more and more when we’re feeling the effects of CF. We need support. Find a friend at work, talk with a therapist who understands compassion fatigue, build a peer support group that meets each month, don’t ignore the phone calls from your family…do whatever you can to stay connected to those who care about you.
If someone is feeling depressed or having suicidal thoughts, what should they do?
If you’re feeling hopeless, anxious, depressed, or working through unresolved trauma, please seek out professional mental health help. Self-care strategies alone aren’t enough. Ask a friend or your primary physician for a referral or visit a site like PsychologyToday.com to find a professional in your area.
If you or someone you know are suicidal or in crisis, you need to get help immediately.
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK for help. The call is free and totally confidential. A trained crisis worker will listen to your problems and will tell you about mental health services in your area.
If you suspect a friend or coworker is suicidal, encourage them to get help, give them this number or take them to get help, and let them know that you and others really care about them and want them to be well. And keep following up with them, even after the crises looks like it has passed.
What’s the good news?
The good news is that we love our work. Animal care workers have some of the highest levels of compassion satisfaction – which is the joy we get from doing our jobs well. When we take care of ourselves and reconnect to the joys of our work, it can help us become more resilient to the challenges of the work.
Making a conscious effort, through simple exercises, to be aware of and acknowledge what we enjoy and find meaningful about our work not only boosts our positive outlook, but it helps us to stay empowered: it’s our choice to keep doing the work we love, despite how difficult it can be.
Another good thing is that the conversation about compassion fatigue is growing and more and more resources are being created every day to address this important issue. Veterinary social workers, support groups, online classes, and webinars are all now available to help animal care workers access the help they need to be healthy while they continue to do good work.
Where can people learn more about compassion fatigue?
Check out the resources listed on my website. You can also take a class with me online. My self-study course, Compassion in Balance, is available to you anytime and was created specifically for people who work with animals.