Did you take the quiz about shelter adoptions posted earlier? If you did, you know that roughly 1/3 to 1/2 of adoptable animals entering shelters each year are euthanized according to most recent estimates by the Humane Society of the U.S. That is approximately 2.7 million healthy cats and dogs.
As you are likely well aware if have ever met a person working in animal welfare, or are one yourself, animal rescue workers are a passionate folk! Whether they are paid for their work or volunteer their time, they are led by their love of animals and desire to make a change in the conditions faced by those found homeless, neglected or abused. For those who work in open-admission animal shelters, who are both on the receiving end of 'cast off' animals as well as the happy circumstance of finding those animals homes, the ones that don't make it out of the system weigh heavily on their hearts and minds.
Look again at the numbers...2.7 million animals amounts to approximately one animal euthanized every 13 seconds. That is a lot of death. Typically, the job of performing euthanasia on society’s unwanted animals falls in the hands of animal shelter workers, animal control officers, or other animal care professionals, creating what Arluke (1994) called a caring–killing paradox. That is, animal care professionals, such as shelter workers, are expected to euthanize companion animals for whom they have been providing care and protection.
No surprise then that compassion fatigue, also known as “secondary-traumatic stress disorder”, burnout and complicated bereavement ensue, creating serious, and often undiscussed problems within the field despite the high costs of stress.
A recent study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reveals that animal rescue workers have a suicide rate of 5.3 in 1 million workers. This is the highest suicide rate among American workers; a rate shared only by firefighters and police officers. The national average suicide average for American workers is 1.5 per 1 million.
And if you think the role of stress and compassion fatigue is under-studied and under-recognized in animal welfare staff, the problem is only compounded for the unpaid, volunteer,workforce who can easily outnumber paid staff by a factor of ten or more.
For those volunteers who may work intensively with animals at risk for euthanization but who have no role or control in how or when that decision is made, the level of stress is every bit as complex and impactful as it is for paid staff. Their essential lack of power, as studies on internal vs. external locus of control and stress resilience would suggest, could mean that for some the experience of stress may even be higher.
While volunteers are theoretically free to leave, often their passion for the cause, their connection with the animals still waiting for homes or rescue, and their awareness of inadequate staffing levels in many organizations make exercising that option extraordinarily difficult.
The bottom line is this: Despite the many joys in helping animals in need, (and there ARE many joys) there is also considerable heartbreak experienced at every level within animal welfare organizations.
Of course, sometimes people who are knee (or eyeball) deep in the trenches don't always have a good view on themselves. They may be so used to feeling low levels of burnout and fatigue that they simply no longer realize just how much weight they are carrying. Most feel like that are too busy working to be able to stop and think about themselves.
So, maybe this would be a good opportunity to take the time, anyway.
Think you might be at risk for compassion fatigue? It might be helpful to take this brief quiz, just as one way to see where you fall.
The ProQOL, in use since 1995, a measure of professional quality of life, is the most commonly used measure of the negative and positive affects of helping others who experience suffering and trauma. The ProQOL has sub-scales for compassion satisfaction, burnout and compassion fatigue. While not created specifically for those in animal welfare, you can easily substitute 'animals' for 'people' in the questionnaire below. (Click for full-sized images.)
If you fall in a range that causes you some concern, please pay attention to that. You may pride yourself on how heavy a load you can carry and how tough you can be in facing ongoing pain but this isn't about seeing how much you can endure. Be aware of ways you are coping which may help in the short run but might cost you in the long run. There are a million ways we can self-medicate our pain, countless ways to become an escape artist and numb out.
And if you think just working harder, or waiting until high season is over, is going to help, let's be honest...you are battling a tidal wave. There won't be an end to the plight of homeless animals in your lifetime. That does NOT mean there won't be progress. But it does mean there won't be a day that you can just sit back and feel like the job is done. You have to decide for yourself what you can handle and how available you can be.
The good news is, your aren't alone. The bad news is, trusting everyone else is notoriously difficult in this field.
And if you are in a leadership position within your organization, it is important to recognize the legitimacy and magnitude of the need for both paid and unpaid staff to have an opportunity to process the emotional fallout of this work.
And yes, it is true that many 'animal people' would really rather not deal with people and their emotions. People can be hard, messy, needy, difficult to trust, prone to power struggles and drama, time consuming and...yes, yes, all those things...and as a leader you get it from staff, volunteers and people who come in and surrender pets in staggering numbers! The dogs and cats aren't the ones getting on your last nerve.
And yet, without taking care of the needs of the people within your organization, (paid or not) you will have a revolving door of staff and volunteers. Be very careful about drawing the conclusion that volunteers come and go and that staff always move on.
Strong leadership that takes seriously the emotional demands of the work on their paid and volunteer staff while looking for ways to help mitigate those demands can do a great deal to stabilize the workforce, improving morale and helping decrease stress for humans and animals alike.
Dealing with those issues yourself may not be your greatest strength. Life is too short to try to perfect your weaknesses so just own that and get help. And even if dealing with the people side of rescue is a strength, you can only wear so many hats and you need your own self-care.
Interested in finding resources to help?
The Caring-Killing Paradox: People Get Hurt, Too is another article on the topic you may find useful.
Here is a research article on employee reactions and adjustment to euthanasia-related work (Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science). It discusses factors that tip employees into or away from compassion fatigue and burnout.
Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project has a plethora of resources.
I can also offer myself as a resource. I have 20 years experience working in the fields of psychology and personal coaching. Free consultation available.