organization

Is Self-Care Letting Organizations Off The Hook?

I’m always full of questions, but lately these are at the top of my mind:

Who benefits when we don’t ask the right questions? And how does this potentially uphold the status quo?

Here’s what I mean: have you ever questioned why everyone is so focused on self-care as the solution for compassion fatigue?

Who does it benefit when self-care is the ONLY way we’re taught to manage this predictable byproduct of our work?

The answer is simple:

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.

The researchers backs that up. Self-care alone isn’t enough.

Self-care is necessary, but it’s insufficient on its own.

So if anyone tells you that self-care is the be all, end all of compassion fatigue management, just ask them: who does that benefit?

Psst, just one more time for the folks in the back…you still have to do self-care, just be sure to examine the systems you’re in too!

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 PsychologyToday.com or GoodTherapy.org

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.

“Self-Care is Not a One-Time Activity” an Interview with Enid Traisman

Earlier this year I came across an article about compassion fatigue that introduced me to the fabulous work of Enid Traisman, CT, MSW. A certified grief counselor and Director of the Pet Loss Support Program at DoveLewis Emergency Animal Hospital in Portland, OR, Enid recently co-founded the DoveLewis wellness program to support the staff in the benefits of self-care and work-life balance.

Research has shown that in order to effectively manage compassion fatigue, changes must happen at both the individual and the organizational level. So I was thrilled to learn that DoveLewis was making staff wellness a priority, incorporating different approaches to supporting staff as they engage in this challenging work. Eager to learn more, I reached out to Enid.


Jessica: Can you tell us more about Wellness Month at Dove? How did this idea become a reality?

Enid: Over the years I have seen amazing veterinary professionals pour their hearts and souls into their jobs, and I have seen countless numbers of these wonderful folks suffer from compassion fatigue and burnout. Some leave the field, others continue to practice but no longer enjoy working.

Veterinary care is high stress for a variety of reasons, including the shorter lifespan of animals, economic restraints inhibiting optimal care, difficult clients, cranky coworkers and long, long hours. Many veterinary professionals are born to be caregivers. Caregivers by nature thrive on helping others, often at the expense of taking care of their own needs that they may deem unimportant or even selfish.

As a certified grief counselor and compassion fatigue specialist I have seen firsthand and studied the importance of teaching self-care and work-life balance to veterinary professionals. For years I have been providing workshops teaching these skills to facilitate veterinary professionals in continuing and enjoying their career helping animals.

The workshops, complete with self-assessments and tools to build a viable self-care routine were well received and helped people understand why they were feeling fatigued. BUT, it is hard to put into action changes necessary for combating and healing from compassion fatigue – and that is where the idea for bringing Wellness Month to our staff came from.

Along with my co-worker, CVT and certified yoga instructor Josey Kinnaman, we designed a month full of activities and opportunities that would be easily accessible for our staff. Our goal was to encourage and make it easy for our staff to experience a variety of self-care practices in hopes of starting new healthy habits.

Some of the opportunities provided at the hospital:

* Fresh healthy snacks and drinks daily to help sustain their physical bodies.

* Yoga sessions twice weekly to support a healthy mind and body.

* Onsite massages to sooth sore, tense muscles.

* Guided imagery with a Buddhist monk to teach relaxation of the mind and body.

* Art activities to unleash creativity, including scented bath salts and neck warmers.

* A contest to encourage exercise, hobbies, and replenishing activities outside of work.

Enid and Dogs
Enid with her dogs


How has the response from staff been so far?

Many of the staff were enthusiastic and appreciative of the many activities we brought to the hospital for them to participate in. We had upwards of 70% participation in some of the activities. We heard many great comments and requests to continue with wellness activities every month.


What advice do you have for management, of animal shelters and vet practices, who would like to support their staff’s emotional health and to encourage workplace wellness?

The support of management is essential for impacting positive changes in the culture of work environment. By providing the expectation and allotting time for employees to take good care of themselves it is more likely to happen. Even small changes like implementing regular breaks for the staff so they can eat a healthy snack, hydrate and take walk around the block for some fresh air will make a huge difference.

I have heard managers say that it is too busy to take breaks…I disagree; staff members will be more effective, make fewer mistakes and be more pleasant with their co-workers and patients if their basic needs are being met.

Managers can support work-life balance by limiting overtime scheduled. With a tough job like veterinary care, it is very important to have time away from the stressors of the job to unwind and replenish between shifts. They must have time to catch up on sleep and have some fun and exercise to be at the top of their game.

In the long run, supporting self-care and work-life balance will come back to the hospital tenfold, happier staff, well cared for patients and clients and less turnover.

Euthanasia plays a big part in our experiences of compassion fatigue. Many of us are grieving the deaths of the animals we’ve cared for, at the shelter or at our vet practices, as well as comforting our clients who are grieving the loss of their pets. What, if anything, can we do to make this part of our jobs less traumatic?

Acknowledging how sad euthanasias are and recognizing that they take a toll emotionally is a good first step. Too many veterinary professionals push the sadness down and shrug their shoulders thinking this is just part of my job. Yes, it is part of the job, a sad part that needs to be consciously attended to.

Additionally, I try it instill in our staff that grieving clients do not need to be fixed; their sadness need not weigh heavily on us because grief is a normal, healthy response to loss. The people who are grieving loved their animals deeply and experienced the joy of the human animal bond. In this field, we love those people for taking good care of their companions. And, people will heal from their grief in time and with support. I explain to the veterinary staff that by providing a compassionate euthanasia and expressing heartfelt condolences for the family they are providing a meaningful service and setting the groundwork for a healthy healing process. Trust that these folks will heal, but first they need the space and support to grieve, not to be “fixed”.

Are there any rituals or practices that might help veterinary hospital staff to cope with the challenges of the work and let go of painful emotions?

Each individual and/or hospital will benefit by creating a ritual to deal with the buildup of sadness. Some hospitals dim the lights for a moment to signify a euthanasia will be taking place to acknowledge the reverence of life and death, a moment of silence instead of background chatter about weekend plans. For some people, taking a moment at the end of each shift to say the names of those who died, writing their names and a special quality about them in a book or reciting a prayer. For others it may be getting a weekly massage to release the sadness and tension they were holding in their bodies. Someone else may take a hike to a beautiful spot and lay stones in memory of each family who has suffered a loss.


What’s a simple self-care act that consistently replenishes and sustains you?

I practice healthy eating, exercise, and sufficient sleep regularly. I enjoy the guilty pleasure of watching TV in the evening with my cats and dogs on the couch with me. My hobby is fused glass work, creating in my studio replenishes me. I hope to hike more this summer and plan a trip to somewhere exotic.

Is there something that gets in the way of your self-care? How do you move through it?

Not enough time is a constant struggle. I remind myself that I must prioritize and make time to eat healthy, exercise and sleep. It is a continuous struggle to put my basic needs first, so that I don’t become cranky and irritable about helping others. When I feel I am going off course, I remind myself to be mindful, to do some easy, quick deep breathing exercises, and schedule in a nice bath or movie night in the immediate future as a gift to myself.


Do you have a mantra or favorite quote that serves as a guidepost in your work?

The heart first pumps blood to itself before it pumps blood to the rest of the body; I must take good care for myself if I want to take good care of others.

 

How would you finish this sentence?

Self-Care is: essential to sustain our ability to help others.

 


Any other words of wisdom?

Self-care is not a one-time activity. It’s not a finite project like building a house. It’s more like the ongoing creation of a garden. It’s never done. It requires ongoing attention. Yet, like the joy of tending and continually creating a garden, there can be great contentment and satisfaction in tending to our own bodies, hearts and souls. Service to the animals is sacred. And so is taking great care of ourselves.


Yes, that’s so well said. Thank you Enid!

 

For more of Enid’s work, visit her DoveLewis blog, or pick one of her five books, which includes My Pet Remembrance Journal designed for bereaved pet owners.

 

p.s. If you’re outside of the Portland, OR area and would like to deepen your understanding of compassion fatigue, you may be interested in my 2015 summer class, Compassion Fatigue Strategies, at the University of Florida’s Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Program or one of my other online courses.

 

Be well,

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