For many people, the term “compassion fatigue” is an unfamiliar one, although it is now a concern in many occupations. It seems to have first appeared in the 1980s and was primarily used for people in the caretaking professions such as doctors, nurses, social workers, etc. The American Institute of Stress defines it as “The emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events”. It is easy to imagine that definition being applied to a wider range of individuals working as counselors, therapists, clergy, even people who work in the field of corrections. It can even be considered an occupational hazard and it is making its presence known among those who work with companion animals. It stands to reason that veterinarians would suffer, given the demands of caring for the medical needs of people’s pets, and it is not surprising that it can occur in anyone involved in animal work, including animal rescuers, shelter workers, and animal advocates. The fatigue can be mentally and physically exhausting, even debilitating. For the purposes here, the term animal care will be used to apply to all of those areas.
The Humane Society of Southern Arizona periodically teaches a class in compassion fatigue. In the class I attended, the instructor explained that compassion fatigue is considered secondary trauma because the animal advocates have not actually experienced the trauma the animals have suffered. It also differs in the world of animal advocates because the animals cannot “talk” and thereby share first-hand information about their trauma. The flow of animals and people needing help never stops and the sheer numbers can be overwhelming. Additionally, some animal caregivers are in the unenviable position of having to euthanize animals. These and other strains pose very real risks to caring people and can be manifested in several ways. A 2014 article in “Veterinary Team Brief” lists the following signs of compassion fatigue:
- Anxiety, fear, shame
- Change in weight, appetite, eating habits
- Diminished morale, poor self-esteem
- Dread or horror
- Feelings and thoughts of inadequacy
- Flashbacks of thoughts and images
- Frustration, anger, resentment, rage
- Grief, numbness, fear of death
- Inability to let go of work-related issues
- Loss of hope, loss of enjoyment
- Obsessive, compulsive desire to help
- Physical illness, lack of energy, constant fatigue
- Poor work performance, decreased work interest
- Sadness, depression
- Secretive self-medication, addiction
- Sleep disturbance, nightmares
- Withdrawal from social contacts, isolation, avoidance
Preventing and managing compassion fatigue can be done in a number of ways. Some suggestions just make for common sense, such as practicing good self care in order to help stay resilient. Self care must be authentic and sustainable, so treating oneself to a Las Vegas weekend every month would hardly fit that description. Getting plenty of sleep, however, would certainly be an appropriate form of self care. Being kind to yourself and avoiding self-criticism is also important. Caregivers should set boundaries and be able to say “no” sometimes, whether it is related to animal care work or other areas of your life. Practice expressing your needs to those around you by telling people what you want and don’t expect others to read your mind. Enhance your awareness of the risks of compassion fatigue by educating yourself. There is a lot of information available on the free web, but don’t hesitate to seek the help your local librarian. Exchange information with others who will validate your feelings and avoid people who may say things like “What’s the big deal? It’s just a dog . . . . “ Be proactive in your work rather than reactive to whatever comes down the pike. It is also vital to set goals for yourself that are outside the realm of animal advocacy, such as eating healthier, taking a class, planting a garden or spending more time with family. Lastly, recognize the support systems you already have in place and don’t hesitate to get professional help if you need it.
by Rosanne Couston
“Compassion Fatigue.” The American Institute of Stress. The American Institute of Stress, n.d. Web. 09 June 2016.
DeNayer, Sharon. “Are You At Risk For Compassion FATIGUF?.” Veterinary Team Brief (2014): 21. Vocational Studies Complete. Web. 9 June 2016.
Johnston, Peggy. “Compassion Fatigue.” Humane Society of Southern Arizona. Humane Society of Southern Arizona, Tucson, AZ. “ 22 July 2015. Workshop.
Lynch, Susan H, and Marie L Lobo. “Compassion Fatigue In Family Caregivers: A Wilsonian Concept Analysis.” Journal Of Advanced Nursing 68.9 (2012): 2125-2134. Academic Search Premier. Web. 9 June 2016.