Compassion Fatigue: Caring Until It Hurts
Working in an animal shelter is hard. Every day, animals are abandoned, suffer, and die. Meanwhile, members of the public who visit the shelters have unrealistic expectations. They don’t want to listen to adoption counselors, and sometimes, they bring in their old, sick, and dying companions because they don’t want to face what must be done. For shelter employees, this is all part of the job description. But over the long term, these conditions can exact a heavy emotional toll, leading to burnout and compassion fatigue.
This study set out to examine compassion fatigue and resiliency factors in animal shelter workers. Compassion fatigue occurs when individuals become traumatized in the process of helping others and it has both emotional and behavioral costs that are closely related to burnout. Irritability, mood swings, anger, sadness, guilt, and feelings of powerlessness are all symptoms of compassion fatigue.
Both organizations and the people that work for them feel the negative effects of this condition. In the human helping professions, workers experiencing compassion fatigue take more sick days, are less effective, and are more likely to quit their jobs. When this occurs in shelter workers, it can impact animal welfare by disrupting shelter operations. Stressed employees may not provide the best animal care or public interactions. This can lead to lower rates of adoption and increases in euthanasia. Turnover is costly to all organizations, and the negatives associated with this work such as low pay and difficult conditions may make it hard to fill vacant positions.
To better understand why some shelter workers — but not others — suffer compassion fatigue, the researchers in this study conducted semi-structured interviews with six current shelter employees (and one former employee) recruited in Salt Lake County, Utah in early 2016. The average age of the participants was 29, and the average time working at a shelter was 2.5 years. Roles included manager, veterinary technician, adoption counselor, and kennel technician. All subjects currently worked in, or had previously worked in no-kill shelters. (A shelter is defined as no-kill when it adopts out or releases 90% of the animals it takes in.)
Using open-ended questions, researchers asked about the work. Questions covered experiences as a shelter worker, difficult and rewarding elements of the work, feelings of compassion fatigue, and how well the organization assisted with or contributed to the problem. Researchers looked for patterns in how the subjects coped with this demanding type of work to identify strategies that created emotional resilience.
Unsurprisingly, the participants reported stress from heavy workloads, low pay, seeing animals suffering, and taking part in euthanasia, But most of the workers also showed emotional resilience, with four of the seven describing the work as something they loved or found rewarding. Coding of the interview transcripts revealed several themes that may help to explain this resiliency.
- Intrinsic Motivation – the internal reasons for working at a shelter, such as an ability to form strong connections with non-human animals
- Right Reason – being there for the animals as opposed to working simply for a paycheck or other non-animal related reasons
- Affinity With Non-Human Animals – often expressed as a lifelong love of animals, it prompted subjects to seek out shelter work
- Attachment To Non-Human Animals – once working at a shelter, subjects tended to form close bonds with the animals in their care.
- Purpose – shelter work offers a sense of purpose to the workers,
- Making A Difference – participants were able to save lives, facilitate adoptions, and nurse sick or injured animals. While this factor helped to foster resilience, it also caused significant stress because participants felt such a deep sense of responsibility for the animals. Indeed, not being able to make a difference seemed to be a particular risk factor for compassion fatigue.
- Focusing On the Positive – focusing on positive outcomes reassured workers that they were in fact making a difference.
- Social Support – shared experience made other shelter workers the most valuable form of support. Shelter animals themselves were also a frequent source of comfort.
- Coping Strategies – self-care was extremely important for protecting against compassion fatigue.
The sample size and method of this study suggest using it with caution, since it may not be generalizable. That said, the results have several practical implications for animal advocates. Screening job applicants for intrinsic motivation may identify those who would best handle the stresses of shelter work. Also, encouraging relationships within the employee group and with the animals they care for can positively impact emotional resilience. This study can also prompt advocates to recommend surveys of shelter workers to assess their level of compassion fatigue. Results of such surveys could be used to further improve the emotional health of shelter workers and the lives of the animals who depend on them.