Compassion Fatigue Among Chimpanzee Caregivers
Many care workers at some point experience compassion fatigue, or feelings of trauma as a result of helping others. Typically, compassion fatigue has been observed in educators, social workers, medical professionals, and advocates for victims of torture. Importantly, however, it also affects people caring for non-human animals such as veterinarians, laboratory workers, wild animal rehabilitators, and primate caregivers.
Prior research shows that people working with non-human primates have significantly higher levels of compassion fatigue compared to those working with other species. In this study, the author assesses chimpanzee caregivers’ perceived professional quality of life. This includes their levels of compassion satisfaction (positive feelings of job satisfaction and empowerment), burnout (feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, or disconnected from work), and secondary traumatic stress (experiencing harmful effects from either witnessing others’ trauma or experiencing trauma directly).
The surveys were scored as follows:
- Compassion Satisfaction: Scores above 23 indicate higher levels of professional satisfaction, while scores below 23 suggest lower satisfaction.
- Burnout: Scores above 41 indicate high levels of burnout, while scores below 23 suggest lower levels of burnout.
- Secondary Traumatic Stress: Scores above 43 represent higher levels of secondary trauma or fear in the workplace.
Overall, 61 chimpanzee caregivers in the U.S. responded to the author’s online survey, including a mix of caregivers from sanctuaries and other captivity settings. Participants worked with chimpanzees anywhere from 1 to 25 years (the average was 5.5 years). The average score for compassion satisfaction was around 39, while for burnout and secondary traumatic stress it was approximately 27.5.
Broadly, these scores indicate that the chimpanzee caregivers included in this study had high levels of compassion satisfaction and moderate levels of burnout and secondary traumatic stress. Compassion satisfaction was higher than what other researchers have seen in laboratory workers, veterinarians, veterinary nurses, and animal research technicians. However, burnout and secondary traumatic stress levels were approximately equal to veterinarians and higher than other types of animal caregivers, including laboratory workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, animal research technicians, and non-human primate sanctuary workers. Burnout and secondary traumatic stress were higher among the participants in this study than even some human medical professionals, including surgeons, palliative care nurses, and oncology nurses.
To most effectively care for animals, we must—as humans—also care for ourselves. This is not only important for our own mental health, but it also ensures we’re able to do our best work for the animals who rely on us. Research suggests that human caregivers who experience compassion fatigue are more likely to misdiagnose, not fully listen to, or even abuse the people they care for. The author of this study worries that the same may be true for animal caregivers, especially given that animals can’t communicate the same way other humans can.
To help chimpanzee caregivers (and other animal care workers) cope with compassion fatigue, the author suggests that workplaces offer professional development, mindfulness training, counseling, and other resources. It’s also important to foster positive relationships among staff members and to reduce workloads and encourage work-life balance as much as possible.