Compassion Fatigue In Animal Shelter Volunteers
Studies have found that physical and mental exhaustion in workers can lead to the loss of the ability to nurture, otherwise known as “compassion fatigue.” Those who work with either traumatized humans or nonhuman animals are more likely to experience significant stress, and therefore quit such volunteer work more frequently. The goal of the present study was to determine why and to what extent volunteers experience compassion fatigue, and what helps lessen it.
The authors of the study invited all volunteers from all 185 licensed animal shelters in the state of Michigan to participate. A third of volunteers had worked at their shelters for less than three years, with a majority working one-to-two hours per week (39%). The majority of volunteers also fell within the age range of 45 and 74 (83%), reported as female (77%), as white (68%), and as having a college degree or higher (62%).
The most significant stressors on volunteers were shelters with open-intake policies, or, shelters that must accept any animal from their service area versus those that can select animals people are most likely to adopt. Such shelters likely not only increase rates of euthanasia for space, they more often accept neglected and cruelly abused animals (e.g. from dogfighting). Conversely, shelters with higher live-release rates – i.e. the number of animals that shelters return to owners, adopt out, or transfer to other shelters or rescues – generally caused less stress in shelter volunteers.
Although volunteers at shelters with open-intake policies reported more compassion fatigue, importantly, the authors did not find a link between euthanasia itself and compassion fatigue in volunteers. By contrast, studies have shown that euthanasia increases compassion fatigue in animal shelter employees. However, the authors noted that volunteers may perceive exposure to animal cruelty and trauma as worse than knowing the euthanized animal ceases to suffer at all.
The authors also looked at factors that are likely to decrease compassion fatigue. The study found that shelters that provide more support lower compassion fatigue in volunteers. Since volunteers typically have less control over decisions than employees, allowing volunteers to have more organizational involvement, including enabling them to understand the reasons for euthanasia, is likely to lead to less burnout and stress, and to retain volunteers in shelters. Interestingly, the study found that the simple presence of other individuals in the volunteer’s home was not enough to combat compassion fatigue.
The study found that other solutions to mitigate stress and burnout in volunteers include grief and stress management training for staff, as well as having volunteers rotate through different types of shelter roles. Limitations of the study include the fact that the study was only conducted in a single state, and sampling bias, namely, that shelters expecting positive responses from their volunteers may have been more willing to have them participate.
In an ideal world, live release rates would be increased to help prevent compassion fatigue in volunteers. Since this is not often possible, particularly in urban shelters, implementing support programs for volunteers while also enabling more organizational engagement for volunteers may be more realistic. Given the importance of volunteers to nonprofits generally, and to animal shelters specifically, shelter management should strive to decrease volunteer burnout and turnover to improve the welfare of shelter animals overall.