Regardless of whether you work directly with the animals at your sanctuary or if you support the organization in other equally crucial ways, there will always be an inherent risk of developing compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is an occupational hazard for any human working closely with someone who has experienced or continues to experience trauma or great difficulties. Its risks can be compounded by the selfless attitude of those who choose to serve systematically exploited populations day in and day out. Although it has many causes and can lead to many personal and organizational challenges, compassion fatigue can be managed with appropriate recognition, intervention, policies, and procedures.
What Is Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is most easily understood as a secondary traumatic stress disorder (also known as STSD, which has similar symptoms to the related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). When someone is helping others make it through traumatic experiences, the helper can develop their own reaction to that trauma. Unlike burnout, which typically develops over a long period of time, compassion fatigue can become symptomatic suddenly, triggered by seemingly unrelated events, or by things that wouldn’t normally elicit a strong emotional response. Compassion fatigue affects many people in different occupations, from eldercare practitioners, to therapists, to first responders.
It is especially endemic to those working at animal sanctuaries, given the staggering amount of trauma that many sanctuary residents are subjected to throughout their lives, as well as the seemingly endless rescue requests that must be addressed (and typically declined) every week.
What Are The Symptoms Of Compassion Fatigue?
When compassion fatigue begins to affect someone, it can cause a wide variety of symptoms that affect both the individual and, if unmanaged, can spread across the entire organization or lead to burnout.
Symptoms of compassion fatigue in an individual include:
- Anger, anxiety, depression, or an inability to enjoy things one used to
- Unwillingness to provide care and a feeling of guilt as a result
- Reduced ability to feel empathy towards others
- Bottling up emotions and refusing to open up
- Isolation from others in the organization
- Blaming others excessively, especially administrators
- Difficulty doing one’s job or concentrating on tasks
- Appearing mentally or physically exhausted, or generally preoccupied
- Poor decision making or an increase in accidents
- Flashbacks or nightmares of a traumatic experience
- Dissatisfaction with one’s career or future prospects
- Physical unwellness including poor sleep quality, colds, headaches, and stomach aches
- Denial about problems in one’s life
- Problems at home, in personal friendships, or relationships
- Lack of taking care of oneself, such as with their personal hygiene or appearance
- Legal or money issues
- Increase in compulsive behaviors that cause more problems
- Substance abuse as a coping mechanism
Compassion fatigue can be exacerbated or more likely to affect someone if they are also dealing with challenging situations outside of work, such as family issues.
If compassion fatigue affects many people at a sanctuary, it can cause problems for the whole organization, including:
- An inability to work as a team
- Frequent employee or volunteer absences
- An inability to get tasks done, either on time or at all
- A desire to intentionally not follow organization policy or rules
- Negativity towards those in management positions
- Aggressive behavior between staff members
- A strong reluctance towards organizational changes of any kind
- Negativity about the prospects of things getting better
- A lack of ability to envision the future of the sanctuary
Appropriate Compassion Fatigue Management
Once compassion fatigue has set in, it often takes challenging, consistent work to help treat the symptoms, especially if someone is also starting to suffer from burnout. The most important tools an individual has to manage its effects require a recognition of the condition and a commitment to prioritize oneself as they work towards recovery. This can be challenging for many people affected by compassion fatigue in a sanctuary environment, and their recovery may very often require extra encouragement and support from the organization.
Recognizing the condition is the first step towards recovery from compassion fatigue. An afflicted person needs to identify that the changes in their life have a clear source. It’s very important that everyone at the sanctuary, especially those working directly with the residents, has an understanding of what compassion fatigue is and how it presents itself so that they can support those who are suffering from it. Telling someone they may have compassion fatigue can generate feelings of shame or inadequacy in the afflicted person, so it’s very important to always treat those suffering from it with compassion and from a place of understanding. They should be made aware that compassion fatigue can strike anybody, and it is in no way a character flaw.
Part of the recognition process should include gauging how significant one’s symptoms are. Are they beginning to feel listless or frustrated? Or has compassion fatigue begun to negatively impact large swaths of their life? Are they deep on the path towards burnout? This assessment will help determine next steps.
A sanctuary worker suffering from compassion fatigue must be given the space to step back and prioritize themselves. This means recognizing that they have likely placed their needs as a human far below the residents and other humans at the sanctuary. When someone’s self care takes a toll, it is only a matter of time before the care they provide for others or their job declines as well. Ultimately, this self-sacrifice serves nobody! Effective self care can mean many things, depending on what a victim of compassion fatigue needs to begin recovery. It can mean:
- Making one’s health and well-being their first priority rather than an afterthought, including taking appropriate meals, hydration, hygiene, and comfortable exercise
- Being kind to oneself, including avoiding negative self-talk (referring to themselves or their work in disparaging terms). Those who hear someone talking negatively about themselves can gently remind them to choose kinder ways to talk about themselves
- Talking openly about one’s challenges and needs from those supportive to them
- Developing a healthier work-life balance, such as doing their best to “leave work at work” and possibly taking up a hobby completely unrelated to sanctuary life
- Prioritizing getting healthy amounts of sleep each night, even if it means going home earlier or coming in later
- Establishing a gratitude practice, where one reflects on the positive moments of their day
- Spending more time with the residents in non-care circumstances
Reflecting On One’s Experience
A sanctuary worker suffering from compassion fatigue should take the time to think about why they do the job they do, as difficult as it may be. They very likely (at least at one point in time) have had an abundant amount of compassion and enthusiasm for the work. Recognizing this, and processing one’s more difficult emotions that may have dampened this original enthusiasm, can be instrumental in helping to gradually alleviate the symptoms of compassion fatigue. This can be facilitated with the help of a licensed therapist. If someone always avoids processing emotions, they are highly prone to burnout.
It’s also important to recognize the limitations of the work that one sanctuary worker, or one sanctuary, can do to alleviate suffering. We can’t do everything for every being in need, but we can do our best with the resources that we have. A sanctuary can do an immense amount of good, but only if the humans who work there take care of themselves so they can keep effectively carrying out the mission!
Setting Appropriate Boundaries
Someone who is dealing with compassion fatigue needs to ensure that they have set appropriate boundaries in their life. They would likely find it unconscionable for an animal’s boundaries to be crossed or ignored; they have to grant themselves that same respect, as challenging as it can be sometimes. If a part of the job is too emotionally difficult for them and someone else can handle it, they need to have the ability to give themselves space away from that activity. There will always be an overwhelming amount of work and need in a sanctuary environment, but everyone who works for a compassionate organization needs to choose their battles carefully. What small part of the residents’ lives can one improve? What issue can be illuminated? How can one get work done without stretching themselves too thin? It’s critical to re-establish the right to say “no” if someone has let compassion fatigue run rampant in their lives.
Sanctuary Policies That Can Help
As an organization, there are policies that you can set to help protect against compassion fatigue. These policies could include:
- Celebrating victories: Making sure to acknowledge the little and big achievements that your organization accomplished, especially when individuals do their job well.
- Conducting regular mental health check-ins with your staff: Begin your staff meeting by asking people how they’re doing, and make sure to actually let them talk through their challenges! Create a culture where self-expression is encouraged.
- Encouraging your staff and volunteers to take days off for their mental health when necessary: People working at your sanctuary should feel comfortable taking a day to themselves when they feel it, rather than getting to the point where they cannot function without an absence.
- Providing support for those who have gone through a difficult event: If someone experiences a traumatic event at your sanctuary, provide them with the tools to process the event and cope with their feelings, especially grief. Give them space to determine what they need. If the entire team endures a traumatic event, it may be advisable to provide a counselor on the sanctuary grounds for a day.
In addition to these suggestions, check out our resource on retaining a strong care staff here!
Support Has To Come From The Top
If you are a Founder, Executive Director, or work in another top position at your sanctuary, you have the responsibility to help create a culture of care for everyone who works in your organization. You have to set a good example for everyone else by taking care of yourself when necessary. Set appropriate boundaries, talk through your stress and concerns well before they become overwhelming, and most importantly, take time off when you need to. If you do not demonstrate your willingness to take care of yourself outside of the sanctuary, you may be inadvertently setting an unspoken expectation that nobody else should be taking care of themselves either. So be kind to yourself, and let the rest of your organization know that they need to do so as well!