Protecting The Mental Health Of Animal Care Workers
Animal caretakers such as wild animal rehabilitators, foster caretakers, and veterinarians play an important role in protecting animal welfare. However, research has found that they often have much higher levels of mental health concerns than the general public, including PTSD, depression, anxiety, and burnout.
In this study, researchers explored the risk factors of poor mental health in animal caretakers in Australia as well as how these issues might be managed. The authors had two hypotheses:
- Grief levels would be positively associated with burnout.
- Social and organizational support as well as one’s empathy for animals would be negatively associated with burnout.
This study was based on the JD-R model, which suggests that every job has “demands” that make it more challenging and “resources” that make it easier to cope with these challenges. When job demands outweigh job resources, mental health difficulties are more likely to happen. As such, to tackle the mental health difficulties experienced by animal caretakers, either the job demands (e.g., grief or psychological distress) can be reduced, or the job resources (e.g., organizational support) can be increased.
The data was collected from a pre-existing survey of Australian animal care workers in 2020 — a critical time, as it coincided with COVID-19 and the 2019-2020 Aussie bushfires. The survey measured participants’ PTSD, psychological distress (including their depression, anxiety, and stress), personal and work burnout, and grief. It also included questions about participants’ social support, organizational support, and empathy for animals, which the authors believed were important “resources” to protect mental health. Finally, the survey featured an open-ended question about what participants saw as the positives of their job.
For job demands, the researchers found that grief was the most significant issue. The majority of animal care workers experienced grief due to the experience of non-humans in their care passing away. Grief was found to contribute significantly to both personal and professional burnout, as well as to other issues such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
The authors noted that potential rates of PTSD among those surveyed was five times higher than the Australian average (31% vs. 6%). Severe psychological distress symptoms were also more common among animal caretakers than in the general public. Specifically, around half of the respondents seemed to be suffering from mild to severe depression, anxiety, or stress. Meanwhile, as many as 58.5% were experiencing personal burnout and 45% were experiencing work burnout.
The researchers found that professional or organizational support was the biggest job resource for animal care workers, as it was negatively correlated with burnout and other psychological distress symptoms. Social support (i.e., support from people outside the workplace) was less important than the researchers had anticipated. Empathy for animals played only a weak role in the results.
The open-ended question provided further insight into these results. For example, many animal care workers cited animal-related accomplishments (e.g., helping animals recover from injury or returning lost companions) as job benefits. Others cited professional growth, positive relationships with colleagues and clients, and contact with animals as rewarding. Some participants mentioned the downsides of the job, especially problems within their organization, feeling underappreciated, and feeling under pressure.
It’s important to remember that the survey was conducted during an unusual time in Australia. Nevertheless, it suggests that animal care workers suffer as a result of the trauma and grief they experience on the job. It also emphasizes that providing more organizational support can help combat the negative effects of such an emotionally taxing career.
The researchers provide several suggestions to improve the well-being of animal care workers. They note that grief support is often overlooked in this industry, and that workers may benefit from bereavement debriefing and group support sessions. Other forms of professional support include helping animal caretakers manage their workload, facilitating team bonding and relationship-building, and providing resources to proactively address psychological distress and PTSD in the workplace. Finally, professional growth opportunities (e.g., training and learning) can help animal caretakers feel supported as they aim to progress in their careers.