Compassion fatigue in animal rescue

Compassion fatigue and burn out are serious issues in charities, perhaps none more so than in animal rescue organisations.  Dr. Vanessa Rohlf is a consultant, therapist, and educator specialising in stress management, compassion fatigue and animal bereavement for animal caregivers.  We asked Vanessa to explain compassion fatigue, the signs to watch out for plus tips for the management and prevention of compassion fatigue in your staff and volunteers.

What is compassion fatigue?  Is it similar to burn out?

Compassion Fatigue (CF) was first coined by Joinson (1992) to describe a unique form of burnout affecting professional caregivers. It is thought to be the result of extended and intense interactions, the use of self and cumulative exposure to stress (Coetzee & Klopper, 2010). There are conflicting definitions of CF in the literature so it can be very confusing to know what is CF and what is not. Some consider CF to be equivalent to secondary traumatic stress, a form of traumatic stress resulting from helping suffering people and/or animals, while others refer to CF as being equivalent to burnout, a form of exhaustion and disengagement resulting from cumulative exposure to the emotional and physical demands of work without sufficient resources to cope with these demands. According to Stamm (2010) and Rohlf (2018), however, CF encompasses both secondary traumatic stress and burnout.

Is compassion fatigue more prevalent in the animal care industry, particularly companion animal rescue organisations?

Dr Vanesssa Rohlf explains compassion fatigue in animal rescueAnimal care professionals, particularly those who work in animal rescue, are at risk of compassion fatigue. Research suggests that those who work in rescue report high levels of guilt, sadness, anger, and exhaustion resulting from their work (Scotney, 2015). Prolonged exposure to animal suffering, neglect and abuse together with working in sometimes aversive work conditions, place these individuals at high risk (Rohlf & Bennett, 2005; Scotney, 2015).

The euthanasia of animals is particularly distressing with many reporting sadness, anger, depression, and traumatic stress symptoms in response to participating in the procedure (Rohlf & Bennett, 2005). Those who foster animals at home also experience high levels of isolation and may find balancing their work and their other life pursuits particularly challenging and this can also place them at risk of CF.

How would rescue groups and animal shelters recognise the signs in their staff and volunteers?

Symptoms associated with secondary traumatic stress include avoidance of reminders, emotional numbing, and intrusive thoughts or images associated with animals that they have helped. Signs also include feeling on edge, irritability and sleep disturbances. Signs of burnout include mental, emotional and physical fatigue, as well as feelings of overwhelm, feeling trapped, sadness and disconnectedness.

If you notice changes in behaviour or attitude, perhaps someone is coming in unusually late or calling in sick, or they are making errors or having accidents which is out of character or perhaps they are just not getting along with others as they normally would then these can also be signs that something might be going on and it’s worth setting aside a quiet time to privately speak to your colleague, staff member or volunteer and ask them how they are going.

What are your top tips to help rescue organisations prevent compassion fatigue (secondary traumatic stress and burnout) in their people?

Management and prevention of compassion fatigue must occur at a number of levels: the workplace, peer and individual. At the level of the workplace, start by acknowledging compassion fatigue as a workplace hazard and start having conversations with staff about what they find stressful, you can also involve staff in your compassion fatigue resiliency program by asking them for feedback and suggestions on what they think may be helpful in reducing and managing some of their stressors. At the peer level, encourage an environment of mutual support and collaboration including regular debriefing sessions. At the level of the individual, encourage self-care, regular breaks and access to counselling and compassion fatigue resiliency and coping skills training.

Most importantly, if anyone recognises CF signs and symptoms, please remember that you are not alone and support is available. I’ve worked with many people who, with time and support, recover from compassion fatigue. This is your body and your mind telling you to make changes and not necessarily a sign that this is the end of your career in rescue – rather it can be taken as an opportunity for growth and a new beginning.

About Dr Vanessa Rohlf

She is dedicated to assisting animal caregivers to manage and overcome their stress, grief, physical and mental exhaustion. She understands that while working with and caring for animals can be an extremely rewarding experience, there can also be costs associated with the role.

Her formal qualifications in psychology, combined with her work experience as a veterinary nurse and animal welfare researcher has helped her fine-tune her knowledge and skills in developing ways to support those who dedicate their lives to animals in need.

Vanessa has a Bachelor of Arts with honours in Psychology, a PhD with a specialisation in psychology (human-animal interactions) and has worked in the animal industry for over 15 years. Vanessa values the importance of ongoing professional development and has also achieved her training as a compassion fatigue specialist (therapist), mindfulness trainer and has certificates in animal bereavement and mental health first aid.

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