What do you think life is like working as staff members or volunteers at an animal shelter?
While it can be a rewarding job, the emotional strain that comes with caring for animals that have been mistreated can be debilitating. Compassion can be an exhausting burden to carry on your shoulders. Those who work with animals refer to this condition as compassion fatigue, which is a sustained and even chronic stress that takes its toll on the minds and bodies of caregivers.
Often times, those who have this stress may not notice it until the weight really builds up from seeing abandoned, abused, and put down animals. According to Dr. Elizabeth Strand, founding director of the University of Tennessee’s veterinary social work program, the most telling symptom of compassion fatigue is that “you cannot undo what you’ve been exposed to, and your worldview is forever changed.”
That’s why Alyssa Krieger, the director of MSPCA-Angell in Massachusetts – one of America’s oldest, busiest animal shelters – has set specific boundaries for her staff and volunteers. She believes in a healthy work-life balance, something she’s learned is essential through her seven years working with the shelter. “If you ask anyone who works with me, I’m constantly yelling at them to go to lunch or go home,” she says.
The founder of The Wildcat Sanctuary in Minnesota, Tammy Thies, agrees that compassion fatigue is a real disease. The facility takes this issue very seriously and hosts seminars on dealing with the condition every year. “It can just be overwhelming,” she states. “Even though you’re doing a good thing, there’s so much sadness around what you do.”
Veterinarians and technicians work very closely with death, and it’s so often the best treatment for an old or sick animal that it really takes its toll on many in the veterinary world. Studies have shown that suicide rates among professionals in that field are among the highest. Thankfully, awareness about this issue has begun to spread, and more people than ever are talking about it.
Dr. Sonja Olson, an emergency clinician at BluePearl Veterinary Partners, says, “We may have a tendency to internalize the emotions and the drama and we just keep working, because it’s what we have to do.” But she, too, has noted that the notion that you can simply keep your chin up through all of that is fading. She has some advice for those in that situation. “You are not alone. Really give yourself permission to have a life. And stay healthy by finding ways to keep yourself well with good nutrition, hydration and exercise.”
So if you work in animal care, be safe and take care of yourself! Do share this so we can keep the conversation going.
Feature Image Source: LISA DELONG