Compassion Fatigue

I’m in the process of becoming certified by the International Association of Behavior Consultants (IAABC) and recently completed their course entitled Animal Behavior Consulting: Principles & Practice. The setup of the course consisted of teaching videos by animal experts, instructional handouts, a weekly online mentoring session with the teacher and all students, weekly quizzes, and a major assignment. Throughout the fall, I’ve been sharing highlights here from my studies.

In the twelfth and final week of my Principles and Practices course, Jessica Dolce spoke on the topic of compassion fatigue. She defined it, explained why it’s so common in the animal welfare field, and presented five strategies for dealing with it.

Dolce defined compassion fatigue as “the physical and emotional exhaustion that arises from the constant demand to care for those in need.” Moreover, she called it a natural stress and an occupational hazard.

In her discussion of compassion fatigue, Dolce defined several other related terms.

  • Primary trauma: an experience that causes direct harm, such as an injury or loss
  • Secondary trauma: witnessing a negative experience, such as the death or injury of a person or animal
  • Burnout: the physical and emotional exhaustion that arises from prolonged exposure to stress without the ability to resolve it; the difference between burnout and compassion fatigue is that the former stems from interactions within the job environment and the latter stems from work with clients

Dolce referred to a 2016 study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that found animal rescue workers have a workplace suicide rate of 5.3 in 1 million workers. She also mentioned a 2010 study that showed that one in six veterinary professionals have considered suicide. With numbers like these, it’s no wonder compassion fatigue is receiving so much attention in the animal welfare world.

According to Dolce, a reason for these high numbers is that “animal care workers are the only helping professionals tasked with the job of ending the lives of those they provide care for.” She added that even those who aren’t directly involved with euthanasia are indirectly impacted because it’s always part of the field. For example, animal care workers know that if they’re unable to help an animal, euthanasia is a possible outcome.

Another reason for these high numbers, Dolce contended, is the cultural practice of placing the needs of others before the cultural practice of animal care workers placing the needs of others before their own. While this may be altruistic and applaudable, the downside is that sometimes animal care workers will fail to develop healthy coping skills. Their drive to be responsible for the welfare of others may cause them to not value their own self-care.

To that end, Dolce recommended the following strategies for maintaining a balance between work (whether paid or unpaid) and personal life.

Awareness: This involves asking several questions about the impact of work on one’s health. For example, what are your physical, emotional, and psychological symptoms? An example of a physical symptom might be headaches, an example of an emotional symptom might be addictions, and an example of a psychological symptom might be resentment. Dolce suggested that newcomers take a Pro Quality of Life Measure every month and a veteran should take an assessment every few months.

Stress Management: This requires one to become cognizant of the warning signals of stress. One should learn to know the difference between feeling good, not doing well, and being in the danger zone. Dolce suggested developing the practice of breathing deeply in and out.

Daily Self-Care: Dolce contends that animal care workers have an ethical obligation to self-care. A lack of self-care can lead to an inability to think clearly effectively. Even worse, a lack of self-care can also limit one’s ability to connect to clients and even lead to leaving the field of animal welfare. Dolce offered many ideas for how to set boundaries between one’s personal and work life, such as developing interests outside of the field. She stressed that being an animal care worker is a marathon, and so one must prepare for the long haul.

Satisfaction: This section made me think the most. Dolce talked about the importance of building a support system. She said that animal care workers should have people in their lives who they can talk to about work stresses. At the same time, there are effective and non-effective ways to share trauma. For example, if one dwells on the details of seeing an animal injured, one is unlikely to find emotional relief. In addition, the listener is likely to experience secondary trauma. Instead, Dolce recommended that animal care workers commit to having constructive talks and lifting one another up.

Act: One should set oneself up for success; to do that, one should set one goal at a time for realistic change. “You can’t stop the waves,” Dolce explained, “but you can learn to surf.” Dolce recommended creating SMART (specific-measurable-achievable-rewarding-and time) goals.

Dolce said she spent fifteen years working with companion animals. During this time, Dolce witnessed the negative effects of compassion fatigue on her clients, coworkers, volunteers, and friends. And she experienced it herself. “Compassion fatigue nearly took me out of the animal welfare game completely,” said Dolce, who is now a Certified Compassion Fatigue Educator.

The information I’ve shared in this article barely touches the surface of what Dolce presented. I encourage you to check out her blog and her resources for more info. At some point, everyone in the animal welfare field will experience compassion fatigue. The more one is prepared for the waves, the easier it’ll be to ride them out.

Happy New Year!

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