Care Staff Retention At Your Animal Sanctuary

A human scratching a pig's chin outside.

Animal Caregivers are passionate about making the world better for animals, one individual at a time. Farmed animal sanctuary caregivers are no different. In fact, their hearts are open to some of the most neglected and abused species on the planet. The job responsibilities of a Caregiver are demanding, and they often take a toll on physical, mental, and emotional health. As a result, these stressors can lead to a high rate of turnover at sanctuaries and rescues. Turnover isn’t just bad for morale; it can also create dangerous gaps in personnel capacity and staff bandwidth that can lead to significant organizational challenges that can be difficult to recover from.

In order to provide care to your caregivers, there are a number of ways you can demonstrate your appreciation and support for them. This can lead to happier, healthier staff, which ultimately will lead to a stronger organization!

Hiring Priorities

If you haven’t expanded your sanctuary’s staff yet, consider hiring a full-time resident Caregiver or Shelter Manager when you obtain the resources to do so. In our experience, this is generally one of the most effective initial staff members to bring on board. Hiring someone to provide resident care can allow Founders and the board to focus their energy on important strategic planning and sustainability efforts, such as expanding fundraising channels.

The Risks: Compassion Fatigue And Burnout

The terms “compassion fatigue” and “burnout” are often used interchangeably, but there are important distinctions to be aware of:

Compassion fatigue occurs when someone is helping others make it through traumatic experiences. As a result, the helper may experience secondary trauma. Those suffering from compassion fatigue may display symptoms similar to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Unlike compassion fatigue, which can present itself at unexpected times after helping others through traumatic experiences, symptoms of burnout manifest as a physical and emotional reaction to prolonged, unmanaged workplace stress. Burnout can be present in any career field, whereas compassion fatigue is more commonly present among those that provide care.

Being able to spot the signs and foster a culture of compassion will help you retain staff. In turn, your staff will be able to provide more effective care for the residents.

Strategies To Help Retain Staff

Animal Caregiver and Shelter Manager positions tend to skew towards the lower end of the pay scale. A lot of work and responsibility is asked of the Caregiver before the potential stress of personal financial concerns is added into the mix. While it is important that everyone earn a living wage, and careful thought and consideration be given to staff wages, studies within the United States have found that 88% of employees leave for reasons unrelated to salary or pay. Instead, feeling unappreciated, undervalued, and unsupported are among the top reasons for leaving a job. There are a number of ways that you can help counter these concerns amongst your staff:

Meet Their Basic Needs

Working at a sanctuary is hard work, both physically and emotionally. Providing staff with a dry, comfortable place to sit and rest during their breaks is critical. When considering your sanctuary plan, don’t forget to include plans for staff bathrooms and a place for downtime. If it’s a particularly hot summer, stock the sanctuary with water and electrolyte drinks. If it’s cold, consider bringing hot drinks and providing an extra heat source. These little touches show staff that their comfort and health is important and they are valued.

In addition, if your sanctuary is formally incorporated in the United States, you must follow certain policies outlined in the Americans With Disabilities Act for the benefit of your employees. Check out those requirements for sanctuaries here.

Set Them Up For Success

When creating the job description and schedule for Caregiver and Shelter Manager positions, be careful to set reasonable expectations and provide in-depth training. These positions are inherently physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding. As you begin to shift your personal focus to organizational development, remember to consider the perspective of your Caregiver or Shelter Manager.

What tools do they need to successfully accomplish their job duties? Are they in good condition? A food bucket with a broken handle is harder to carry and may result in spills. A broken shovel will slow down the removal of soiled bedding and waste. Is there an organized schedule for restocking food, medicine, and bedding? A haphazard restocking schedule can result in huge delays in feeding, medicating, and providing sanitary living spaces for residents. This also places an undue burden on the Caregiver and can result in longer hours, physical exhaustion, and frustration. Don’t forget to ask yourself how you would want to be treated in the same situation!

Review What You're Asking

If you are frequently asking staff to do certain care or maintenance routines for your residents, we’d suggest occasionally performing those activities yourself with the team. Not only does this help create more camaraderie and understanding of what your caregivers go through each day, but it can also help you identify practices and policies that might be able to be updated or modified to make tasks more manageable or effective, rather than letting less efficient or even incidentally redundant tasks dominate your caregivers’ days.

In addition, be specific about the job duties required of care positions. It can be challenging to outline everything that a Caregiver or Shelter Manager might be tasked with, and sometimes these gray areas can result in miscommunication and unwritten expectations that go unmet. If something comes up that hasn’t been communicated clearly, have a dialogue about the concern, rather than assuming that there was any malice, incompetence, or negativity intended. Even the best Caregiver in the world isn’t likely a mindreader!

Staff Responsibility, Choice, And Voice

It can be difficult for Founders to step away from the responsibilities of caring for residents, especially if they have been there from the beginning, but it’s critically necessary, both for staff retention and to prevent Founders from losing bandwidth and capacity due to micromanagement- and wasn’t extra bandwidth one of the primary reasons for bringing on an additional staff member?

  • Allow Some Control And Responsibility Within reason, allow Caregivers to make decisions regarding the care of residents. Of course, any changes involving care policies should be discussed before being implemented, but it’s important to listen and allow room for your staff to do their job in a way that’s sustainable for them. An example of this would be letting your staff choose a day to perform routine health examinations that works best for their schedule.
  • Give Them A Voice Listen to the ideas and concerns of staff, and try your best to address them. They will likely have unique insights into your organization’s strengths and areas for growth that should be valued in day-to-day decision-making and strategic planning. As an example, it’s particularly important to listen to your care staff when euthanasia is being considered for a resident. They work closely with the resident and likely have valuable insight into their wellbeing, personality, and needs. Honoring their perspective and insights can help ensure a consensus that the right decision is being made, however difficult it may be. Additionally, if an employee comes to you with a concern and you have agreed to address it, follow through! Otherwise, the employee may feel dismissed and undervalued.
  • Give Them Autonomy And Choice Instead of always assigning tasks to fill up a workday, let staff choose projects. Consider some flexible project scenarios:

All of the these projects are important, but none of them necessarily require immediate attention. Allow your staff to decide which project to work on and discuss a good time for the other projects to be completed. This will let them set an agenda that is manageable and sustainable for them, and focus their energy on things they’d wish to contribute rather than feeling locked into a routine.

Provide Opportunities For Education And Career Growth

  • Conferences, Workshops, And Classes Consider sending your employees to conferences, workshops, and classes that address animal care and sanctuary operations. This can be a valuable investment in your staff, especially if these trainings take into account their interests and strengths. Some conferences offer scholarships for individuals or sanctuaries to attend. Giving your staff the opportunity to develop and learn new techniques will make your organization as a whole stronger and more knowledgable!
  • Webinars And Online Research If physical conferences aren’t in your budget, consider scheduling on-the-clock time for your staff to watch webinars on various aspects of animal care and management. This can provide a stimulating change of pace, and a much needed physical and mental rest from the daily responsibilities of caring for the residents at the sanctuary. If you have multiple staff, you can set up an opportunity for them to present what they have learned to other staff.
  • Cross-Training This is another way you can invest in the knowledge and skills of your care team while strengthening your sanctuary’s organizational sustainability. If someone leaves unexpectedly or needs to call in sick, another staff member can step in, fulfilling the requirements of that role. Knowing there are others that can provide care for the animals takes pressure off of Caregivers, who may otherwise push themselves beyond their limits, which often leads to Burnout. Check out our resource on cross-training here!

Encourage Life Outside Of Work

Caring for residents who depend on you to meet their daily needs is often emotionally taxing. Grieving the death of a beloved resident can be particularly painful. Knowing the often tragic stories of each resident can be difficult to bear. For all of these reasons, it is especially important that staff have a fulfilling life outside of work. They need to be able to “turn off” and refresh. This is often a difficult task in and of itself and can be made doubly difficult if staff members live onsite or are frequently on-call.

If you have staff in residence or staff that are on-call, be sure to respect their space and time when they aren’t on shift. Don’t call, text, or email them unless it is an emergency, and don’t ask them to run errands or do extra work during their time off. And do not create an expectation that staff should ever volunteer their time towards regular sanctuary operations outside of their shift- it is, in fact, illegal for an employer to have an employee volunteer for a job that they are normally paid for under the United States Fair Labor Standards Act.

Staff may experience feelings of guilt or discomfort for taking time away, particularly if an animal is ailing. It is important that they are encouraged to take time off and are reassured that self-care is mission critical.

Consider finding a way to offer paid time off or vacation time for staff and encourage them to actually use it. Getting a longer period of time away from the daily stresses of sanctuary life can be significantly rejuvenating and help provide a critical pressure release from stress and the initial symptoms of compassion fatigue and burnout.

You Have To Lead By Example

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!

Avoid Non-Compassionate Staff Policies

While it is important to be good stewards of the funds and equipment entrusted to the sanctuary, as well as recognizing the significant responsibility to the residents that staff have each day, it is also important to promote a hospitable, compassionate culture for staff. There are some policies that create a rigid, inhospitable environment that can ultimately lead to higher turnover. Think about the following policies you can implement to keep the support of your staff:

  • Don’t Make Staff Pay For Mistakes – Accidents happen; don’t punish staff for little mistakes. Inevitably, someone is going to drop a tool or lose a key. As long as this isn’t part of a pattern of careless behavior, don’t make your staff pay for human error. Instead of implementing rigid policies that affect all employees, treat repeated mistakes on a case-by-case basis. 
Punishment Can Lead To Serious Problems

In addition to draining morale, by punishing mistakes rather than treating them as an opportunity to learn, you could potentially be creating a dangerous culture where significant accidents and problems go unreported due to concerns of retribution, potentially leading to cascading issues in your organization and in the care of your residents.

  • Don’t Deduct From Wages – In addition to the consideration above, don’t demand repayment or deduct wages from employees for supplies or professional development fees they may have incurred, even if they are leaving your organization, unless there was a pre-existing agreement about this policy. This kind of tit-for-tat policy can be highly demoralizing to your entire staff, not to mention it could potentially be an illegal practice!
  • Don’t Demand Proof – Ensuring staff feel valued and trusted is an important part of staff retention. Policies requiring staff to show a doctor’s note for taking a sick day not only foster a culture of distrust, but also places an undue financial burden on an employee to go to the doctor when this is often unnecessary. Another example would be requiring information on the death and funeral of a loved one when time off is requested. You likely hired your staff carefully because you trust them, so trust them! If a staff member is frequently absent, have a discussion with them and try to figure out how you can support them rather than how to crack down on absenteeism.

Fair Compensation

We know animal care workers aren’t in this line of work to become wealthy. That being said, everyone deserves a living wage. Compensation for animal care staff varies between sanctuaries and depends on a number of factors including location, available funding, job requirements, and benefits. Care staff salaries tend to skew on the lower side even though they have one of the most vital positions in the sanctuary. Do your best to offer fair wages and benefits. If your organization’s operating budget is too tight to offer an acceptable salary, you should build this need into your fundraising plan.  If you worry that offering higher salaries to your care staff will negatively affect the overall impact of your organization because money spent in one area means less to spend in another, consider that offering fair compensation can encourage staff retention which means a more experienced, well-trained team caring for your residents, and constantly tightening your operating budget might create significant issues in your organization. For more on why this line of thinking is unhelpful for non-profits, learn more about the overhead myth.

In addition to fair wages, you should consider providing health care benefits to your staff.  If this is not possible with your current budget, consider making it a goal to offer health benefits as soon as financially possible.  Caregivers strive to provide the best possible care to your residents; providing health benefits helps ensure your caregivers are cared for as well!

Appreciation And Communication

The old adage goes, “Employees often quit bosses, not jobs.” That is, it’s very often the culture and relationship to management that causes staff to become disenchanted rather than their daily responsibilities. Here are some ways you can show your staff you appreciate and value them:

  • Express Gratitude A simple “Thank you for working so hard today,” or “Your thoughtful insight on Wilbur’s pacing behavior helped us create a better care plan for them. Thank you for your input,” can go a long way. A handwritten ‘thank you’ card goes even farther. While verbal appreciation and emails expressing gratitude can be sadly uncommon, a handwritten note is even rarer. Taking the time to write a simple thank you card can have huge impact on the way a staff member feels about themselves and the sanctuary. It’s nice to be appreciated!
  • Job Titles And Promotions Funding is often limited at animal sanctuaries, preventing well-deserved bonuses and raises for care staff. However, this doesn’t prevent you from acknowledging areas of growth and excellence. Have they been leading tours, or otherwise educating the public? Be creative with job titles. Instead of Caregiver, consider Community Educator and Lead Sanctuary Caregiver. Words have meaning and a title that more fully reflects the importance of a position can make staff feel valued and proud of their work and accomplishments.
  • Celebrate Your Staff Does a staff member have a birthday or an important life event coming up? Graduations, marriages, births, acceptance to a program, and other life events are a good time to show your employees appreciation! Give everyone a break and bring a cake or have everyone sign a card for them. Acknowledge they have a life outside of the sanctuary that deserves to be celebrated.
  • Provide Food Food can help build camaraderie between staff and let them know they are appreciated. Potlucks, providing snacks and beverages on a particularly hot or cold day, giving grocery cards, and taking the team out to eat are all ways to show appreciation, particularly after difficult projects have been completed.
  • Consider Gas Cards A gas card for members of your care staff that have a long commute can be especially helpful and thoughtful. Just keep in mind: a gas card should be considered a benefit, not an acceptable substitute for wages!
  • The Gift of Gear – Likely, regardless of where your sanctuary is located, your care staff need certain types of gear in order to do the job more comfortably and safely.  These costs can add up, especially in colder climates where proper winter boots, gloves, and insulated cover-alls are necessary to remain warm and dry.  If it fits into your budget, an annual stipend to cover work gear expenses will surely be much appreciated and encourage staff to replace work gear that is no longer in good shape.  If an annual stipend doesn’t fit into your budget yet, consider identifying a piece of gear everyone will benefit from, such as water-proof work gloves, and provide it for them.  You’d be surprised the difference something relatively small like a good pair of gloves can make in a caregiver’s day!
  • Animal Guardian Perks Very often, those in caregiving positions have animals that they care for outside of their responsibilities at the sanctuary. Where appropriate and possible, a sanctuary could offer benefits for these companion animals. You could provide perks such as offering to pay for their wellness exam and yearly shots, working out a deal with the sanctuary veterinarian for reduced office visit fees, or, if appropriate, allowing staff to bring the animals they care for along with them if they have an office day.

Operating a sanctuary is hard work for everyone. Following these suggestions will help build a strong team, which will ultimately make everyone’s job duties more manageable. As a result, the residents will receive more effective and compassionate care. It’s a win-win all around!

SOURCES:

It’s About You! Top 4 Keys To Retaining Employees | Bent Ericksen & Associates

Workplace Satisfaction | Petpoint

The Pursuit Of Employee Happiness | Animal Sheltering

Updated on August 4, 2020

Was this article helpful?

Related Articles

Support Our Work
Please consider supporting The Open Sanctuary Project by making a donation today! We are 100% donor-funded and rely on the support of generous individuals to provide compassionate resources to animal caretakers worldwide.
Donate Now