Emotional Labor, Burnout, And Animal Advocacy
I’ve always cared for animals: Seeing them happy made me happy, witnessing them suffer caused me near physical pain, and when I saw them confined in cages, I felt like I was entrapped myself. Becoming an animal rights activist was a natural result of this quality: it was more an internal constraint than a conscious choice.
While investigating fur farms, I could not help but feel a bond with animals that I knew were meant to die, that were dying, or were already dead. I struggled to cope with it for a few years and succeeded in a way I instantly regretted: for some time I became completely desensitized to animal suffering.
Being overly empathetic makes life pretty hard, but losing the ability to care is even more distressing, especially when your activist identity is built on emotional connection to animals. After a lot of reading on the subject, however, my experience started to make sense, like a case study for just one of many emotional pitfalls that await animal rights advocates. Long conversations I had with my colleagues made me aware that, despite individual differences, emotional struggles are a shared-but-unspoken experience, rather than the alienating sign of weakness I considered it to be.
There’s A Lot We Can (And Need To) Learn
For the animal rights movement, emotions and empathy are a means to an end (of animal suffering). We are thirsty for knowledge on effective emotional persuasion, knowing that successful appeal to audiences’ emotions may save animal lives. Yet we often downplay the significance of emotions for advocates themselves, forgetting the golden rule of saving lives that we learn on every flight we take: “before you look after anyone else, put the oxygen mask on yourself first”.
There’s a growing awareness of activist burnout, compassion fatigue, and their harmful effects, both for individual advocates and for the overall sustainability of the movement. Our understanding of these issues is mostly based on “activist folk science,” with external research on the emotional aspects of AR activism being scarce and qualitative by nature. Yet, cornerstones for the understanding of the emotional challenges advocates face have already been laid. What’s more, we can learn from other social movements, veterinarians, healthcare and caregiving professionals, social workers, and classical research on a vocational burnout.
Growing Bitter While Trying To Make It Better
“Burnout” is a catch-all word for cumulative, chronic emotional distress that hinders activists’ effectiveness, sometimes up to the point where they disengage from the movement. It’s based on analogy with vocational burnout which is quite well covered in literature, yet it still lacks a clear definition, diagnostic criteria, or data on prevalence. There’s even an ongoing debate about whether burnout should be treated distinctively from the depressive condition in general (Schonfeld, Bianchi, Palazzi, 2018). Occupational burnout used to be described as a work-specific syndrome and initially was limited only to human services employees but this definition has become outdated as burnout theory can be applied to non-work roles (Bianchi, Truchot, Laurent, Brisson, Schonfeld, 2014): such as the role of student or animal rights activist.
The case of “activism burnout” demands a more generic approach: activism is more about our “life’s work” than the formal work we do to make a living. But regardless of how we name it, the practical aspects are disturbing. Pioneering studies on activist burnout in SJHR (Chen, Gorski, 2015), racial justice (Gorski, 2017) and – most recently – the animal rights movement (Gorski, Lopresti-Goodman, Rising, 2019) report that many advocates struggle with symptoms consistent with those described in traditional burnout scholarship, at some point in their career. These include the deterioration of physical health, the deterioration of psychological or emotional health, and the deterioration of hope.
Aside from the very burden of awareness of “what is wrong with the world” and the pressure we put on ourselves in order to challenge it and change it, there is a range of factors that may contribute to burnout. These are individual factors such as emotional commitment and sensitivity, external causes such as being targeted by adversaries or financial vulnerability, and within-movement causes such as infighting, marginalization, or the culture of martyrdom, characterized by downplaying the role of self-care in activist communities.
Animal Activism Is (Full-Time, Deeply Emotional) Labor
The fact that animal advocacy is strongly connected with care and compassion toward animals takes the problem of emotional burnout to the next level. Undercover work and investigations, slaughterhouse vigils, or exposure to footage showing animal abuse (by editing, displaying, or just viewing it) are activities that engage affective empathy: a capacity to get affected by the emotional state of animal others, and respond with appropriate emotions.
Meanwhile, preliminary neurological examination of ethically driven veg*ns’ empathetic responses proves veg*ns demonstrated stronger empathetic reactions that omnivores, to both human and animal suffering, seeing the suffering of animals as related to their sense of self. At the same time, other brain regions showed intensive activity related to self-control and cognitive control of emotion processing, in an attempt to cope with stressful stimuli. This is also reflected in advocates’ biographies and movement practice: a qualitative study of animal rights movement members in Sweden found that the process of becoming an animal rights activist involves learning new emotional response patterns, as the activists “learn to be affected” by animal others (Hansson, Jacobsson, 2014).
Another qualitative study within the same community allowed researchers to map an experience shared by activists regardless of their community circles and organizational belongings, distinguishing five types of emotional labor typical for animal advocates:
- Containing – suppressing negative emotions when necessary to control naturally impulsive or repulsive reactions,
- Ventilation – releasing and unwinding these emotions at other times,
- Ritualization – generating the internal emotional energy that keeps the group together and going,
- Micro-shocking – exposure to often transformative events and experiences that build a commitment to the cause;
- Harnessing feelings of guilt – of not being able to help the infinite number of animals in need.
Inner Work Or Inner Fight?
This is the kind of work that is hard to sustain – and failing to sustain it is fully understandable. There’s no such thing as a normal response when confronting the amount of suffering advocates experience or acknowledge on a daily basis. In my conversations with fellow colleagues, I discovered many activists push themselves beyond their emotional boundaries or, as one friend of mine put in words, they experience “inner fight instead of inner work” – to not fall short of self-imposed expectations, or those of their colleagues.
Moreover, many advocates I spoke with described the use of negative coping techniques. These include:
- Emotional detachment – a defense mechanism that breaks the connection between the situation and an activist’s emotions. Despite being useful as a short-term state that allows activists to keep calm in highly stressful circumstances, emotional dissociation is associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (although the “secondary traumatic stress” or “vicarious traumatization” appear to be more in place, as we are not subjects of traumatizing violence ourselves, but merely witnesses to its victims). Emotional dissociation may also develop into a more serious chronic condition and become a disorder rather than positive behavior.
- Sensitization – a coping strategy that pushes activists to deliberately expose themselves to animal suffering in an attempt to become more resilient. This approach may backfire and, similarly to emotional detachment, it may result in compassion fatigue – lowered levels of empathy and growing indifference to suffering.
What’s Best In Us May Destroy The Best Of Us
Moving back to the topic of burnout, the latest (and at the same time, first) study on burnout among AR activists highlights an alarming fact: animal advocates may be more susceptible to give in to a toxic culture that demands big personal sacrifices and stigmatizes self-preservation, than members of other social justice movements (Gorski, Lopresti-Goodman, Rising, 2019). The very reason is the same deep emotional engagement and great sense of responsibility for the fate of animals that is a part of everyday experience of being animal rights advocate. Moreover, the same qualities push us into emotionally challenging situations that pose a risk to our psychological integrity.
Here comes the big twist: it’s very possible that activists don’t drop out because they are lazy, uncommitted, selfish or weak. They may be backing off and dropping out due to the same positive traits that made them join, and are widely cultivated in, the animal rights movement in the first place. If you catch yourself on thinking about disengaged advocates in the negative categories, pay attention: you may be replicating the culture that increases the risk for those people to detach from the movement.
From Self-Care To Community Care
Now, for every advocate who finds a part of their own experience in these descriptions, there is good news we can learn from generalized research on burnout, trauma, and compassion fatigue in other fields. First of all, we are resilient, overall. Cross-national surveys show that the percentage of subjects that develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder is 5.6% among the trauma exposed (Koenen et. al, 2017) and even among the war veterans that experienced first-hand, it varies from 11 to 20% (National Center for PTSD). Secondly, it’s important to acknowledge that while negative experiences are a part of our “job”, emotional fatigue is an inherent cost of it and some changes in our perception may be inevitable. But that doesn’t mean we are wearing off, as long as we maintain – or regain – our ability to gather up and move on, even after a prolonged periods of justified distress. Last but not least, it’s possible to mitigate burnout, trauma, or fatigue as well as to recover from it. Moreover, even those that have already experienced described symptoms have reported a kind of personal growth and development of resilience.
None of this happens in a void. The individual factors that may contribute to burnout – commitment to the cause and emotional engagement – are common traits of animal rights advocates. How we handle this issue is heavy influenced by our communities and organizations. No amount of personal self-care is enough to maintain sustainability if an advocate’s environment fails them, especially by branding this type of concern as a whim or weakness, causing them to choose between their own well-being and the cause.
In other words, it seems that recovering from burnout may happen if conditions allow it: if the advocate community makes it possible and if not, after leaving hostile environment by disengagement. In the absence of external research specific to animal rights movement, it’s organizational responsibility to create effective ecosystems of support, and lead the fight against burnout. We also need to remember that no amount of organizational interference can impose or fill in the absence of cultivating mutual relations based on understanding, support and mutual care for each other’s wellness. Because we are not the only ones who care, and nobody should be left to care alone.
Faunalytics’ research team is currently working on a study addressing why some advocates lapse after a few months or years and others stay engaged with the movement long-term. Burnout and compassionate fatigue play a key role in the design.