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Self-Care Is Not Optional: How Burnout Ended My Career at the Shelter

Four years ago on my birthday I gave my two weeks’ notice at the animal shelter where I worked. Quitting felt like defeat, guilt, and failure, wrapped in a heavy, wet blanket of numbed out exhaustion. But it was still a good birthday present to myself. I needed out.

I knew I was in trouble months earlier when I started crying as I drove into work in the mornings. Towards the end of my time at the shelter, I began to move through the morning routine in a sad trance. Tears would silently roll as I went about filling food bowls, walking dogs out to the yards for their morning bathroom break, and putting meds together.

I was sad. I was really angry. I was exhausted, mentally and physically, down to my core.  And I knew I wasn’t helping the dogs anymore. I was in such bad condition that I knew I wasn’t able to do my job effectively.

I was completely burned out.

So I left. I felt guilty that I was leaving my fellow co-workers behind in the trenches to do the work I couldn’t do anymore. I felt sick at the thought of abandoning the dogs that were still waiting for homes. But I knew I had to go.

It took months to start feeling better. Actually, if I’m being honest, I was so busted that I didn’t feel like myself for more than a year after I quit. No joke.

Fatigue Fatague cartoon

These days I’m still involved in animal sheltering, but from a distance. In addition to dog walking part-time, I do some writing for an animal welfare non-profit. So I’m still in the loop. And in my work I see a lot of advice geared towards shelter and rescue workers instructing them to be more positive, provide better customer service, to be less judgmental, more compassionate, and more understanding when working with the public.

It’s a reminder that in order to help the animals, we must also help people. We can’t hate people if we want to help animals. When I hear this advice I always nod in agreement. It’s the truth.

But a little voice – a voice from four years ago – always pipes up too: Remember, that’s easier said than done. Who is teaching shelter workers the skills they need to stay positive and open-minded with the public? Where is the compassion for underpaid, overworked shelter workers?

Because the truth is, the work is brutal. Caregiving is hard. All helping professionals struggle: nurses, firefighters, social workers, etc.

The nature of the job is a Catch-22. In order to do these kinds of helping jobs, you have to be empathic. But if you’re emphatic to a traumatized population, then you’re exposed to their suffering. The demands for your empathy are constant and often overwhelming, which leads to high residual stress levels. When this isn’t dealt with, it leads directly to Compassion Fatigue (CF). And that impairs your ability to be compassionate, positive, and helpful to the very population you serve.

Side note: there is one critical difference between all the other helping professions and shelter workers. We’re the only ones that sometimes have to kill those we are assigned to care for. As big as that is, let’s put euthanasia aside for the moment, because you don’t have to be a euthanasia tech in order to experience Compassion Fatigue (though it does correlate with high turnover rates). 

What is Compassion Fatigue? It’s exhaustion due to the stress and demand of being empathetic and helpful to those that are suffering. 

And this is what it looks like from the book To Weep For a Stranger, “When caregivers focus on others without practicing authentic, on-going self-care, destructive behaviors can surface. Apathy, isolation, bottled up emotions, substance abuse, poor personal hygiene, and emotional outbursts head a long list of symptoms associated with the secondary stress known as compassion fatigue.”

Untreated, Compassion Fatigue leads to Burnout. But Burnout is different than Compassion Fatigue.

“Clinicians can experience burnout, but burnout can be experienced by anyone who works too hard, too long, or under too much stress without being exposed to trauma or trauma survivors, as is necessary in a CF assessment. Burnout pertains to the work environment, whereas CF pertains to the emotional involvement of extending empathy to trauma survivors.” From Resilience as a Protective Factor Against Compassion Fatigue in Trauma Therapists.

Once you’re in burnout, you’re not likely coming back. You hate your job at this point. But when you’re dealing with the symptoms of Compassion Fatigue you can, with help, come back from the brink. And, even more importantly, you can protect yourself against Compassion Fatigue through regular self-care and building resiliency.

Sadly self-care doesn’t come naturally to most of us working in shelters and rescues. For me, I knew in theory how to take care of myself, but when the going got really tough I just couldn’t manage to make self-care a priority. I was so tired that all I could do at the end of the day was eat ice cream and watch TV. Many of the people around me at work were also exhausted or numbed out. I think we were all waiting for a break in the relentlessness of our jobs to “catch up” on caring for ourselves. But the break never really comes. I didn’t know how to care for myself in a long distance race with no finish line. Or why it was so important.

The truth is that in order to do this work well – to care for animals and people – you need to be able to care for yourself first. Just having the technical skills to do the job isn’t enough. It’s not enough to know proper sanitation protocols or disease management. Or how to do skilled behavior evaluations. Or know how to handle, socialize, and enrich animals. Or how to speak with potential adopters and counsel them on choosing the right pet.

All of those are skills you need, of course. But you won’t be able to use any of those skills if you’re falling apart. Compassion Fatigue takes away your ability to do good work. Feeling negative emotions and not having the skills to cope with them impairs our ability to connect with other people, think creatively, problem solve, and work well with others.

So all the advice in the world, all the finger wagging, the training seminars, the shaming comments about shelter workers needing to stop saying “I hate people” – none of that is going help them do a better job. Not unless we address Compassion Fatigue and Burnout, since that’s one of the root causes of why they’re not being effective at their jobs.

So why isn’t addressing Compassion Fatigue as important a part of the job training as how to do an evaluation or talk to an adopter? Why isn’t this a priority at every organization?

No one ever said the words “compassion fatigue” to me when I took the job at the shelter. I didn’t understand that what I was initially experiencing wasn’t the same as burnout from a tough job with long hours. It didn’t happen right away, but when symptoms of Compassion Fatigue hit me, I was deeply affected. I felt like no matter how many hours were in a day, I could never give the dogs at the shelter the level of care that I knew they deserved and needed. I worked so hard. But it never felt like enough. No matter how much I did in a day, I rarely felt like I had succeeded. It wore me down.

Of course, there were adoptions. Glorious, wonderful, heart-filling adoptions. I can’t tell you how good it felt to send a dog home with their new family. It was joyous and hopeful and…for me, increasingly scary.

Dogs would come back, returned by the families that had adopted them. That’s part of the job. It was disappointing, but not devastating. But then I encountered a really bad stretch. Dogs that I had personally adopted out were coming back to us abused, neglected, and damaged. Not a lot of dogs. Just a handful. But when you find out that a dog you cared for and sent home with a family that you thought was OK was later found dead or comes back to you 20lbs lighter and covered in scars, it only has to happen a few times to shake you. I started jolting awake at night, sick from nightmares about the dogs that had suffered.

My favorite part of the job – adoptions – felt tainted.

I felt like I couldn’t really trust myself or others. How would I know when a family was lying to my face, as some clearly had? Despite my training and adoption counseling skills, I could never really know if I was sending a dog to an abusive, neglectful home. I had to be ok with that uncertainty, but I felt vulnerable and afraid instead. Which made me feel shut down and negative towards the public.

If you’re reading this now and thinking: You shouldn’t have gotten so hung up on the negative – studies show that the majority of adoptions work out. Or you can’t control everything and wait for the perfect home. Or always keep your eye on the big picture, rather than getting stuck on a small percentage of adoptions gone wrong. You’d be right.

But here’s what I know now, that I didn’t know prior to doing direct care for the dogs:  the map is not the terrain.

You can give people the very best instructions, the most effective techniques, the most cutting edge tools and research – the maps– but they mean almost nothing when you’re dropped into the reality – the terrain – of being a caregiver in an animal shelter.

For example: A map can tell you the elevation of a mountain. But just reading the map while sitting on the couch isn’t the same as what you feel while navigating the terrain. Until you do it, you won’t know exactly when your leg muscles will start spasming as you try to scale that terrain.

The map tells you suggested questions to ask potential adopters. The terrain is filled with the bottled up pain of the dog you just euthanized minutes before meeting a potential adopter, the fear of repeating your past mistakes, and the confusion of being unsure if the person you’re talking to is a good home or not as you try to ask those questions. The map alone isn’t enough to help you get through the terrain.

If we actually want shelter staff to do a better job, to be more compassionate towards the public, to be more effective and to save more lives than we have to do more than give them a really good map filled with “how-to” instructions for how to technically do the job. We have to make self-care a priority so they can stay healthy enough to tackle this complicated emotional terrain.

I’m just going to stop for second to address those of you that are saying to yourself: There are plenty of shelter works that are terrible. They hurt and abuse the animals in their care. They’re hateful to people. They don’t care about lowering euthanasia rates. Shelter workers ARE the problem.

I know that there are some truly awful shelter workers out there. There are also some amazing shelter workers out there that really don’t get bogged down by all the negative stuff and need little help navigating this difficult terrain. They’re the two ends of the spectrum. The really horrible and the really high functioning.

But the average shelter worker is just a regular person that falls somewhere in the middle. They’re trying (and sometimes failing) to do a good job. They love the animals. And they need compassion and resources in order to do a better job. They are exactly the same as the public and adopters in that regard.  If our goal is to help the animals, we have to care for and help people – and that includes people who are shelter workers.

We can’t ask them to do better work without addressing the coping skills they’ll need in order to do a job that can be emotional hell. Let stop for a second and consider what we’re really asking shelter worker to do: We’re asking them to provide constant care for animals in need, some of whom are traumatized. To experience having little control in where those animals ultimately wind up. To feel the fear that things might go badly in an adoption and to let it go. To (sometimes) kill those they’ve cared for. To be vulnerable, to stay open, and to remain positive in the face of what scares and stresses them.

Not an easy terrain to navigate. American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodren, writes in her book The Places that Scare You, “When we practice generating compassion, we can expect to experience the fear of pain. Compassion practice is daring. It involves learning to relax and allow ourselves to move gently towards what scares us.”

buddha 2

Shelter and rescue workers – just like the rest of us – aren’t Buddhist nuns. But that’s essentially what we’re asking them to be: comfortable being vulnerable in their compassion.  None of us – shelter workers to nuns – can do that without a lot of practice.

So what does help? Recent research shows that Resilience can protect against CF and burnout. Resilience is built through awareness and self-care. Self-care is when we commit to nurturing a life outside of work that can counterbalance the intensity of the job and the inevitable stress that comes along with it. When we take care of ourselves, we build the resilience we need to deal with the negative aspects of our job, as well as building job satisfaction. That helps us to feel positive and allows us to do our jobs better.

Self-care is about finding ways to restore a balance between the negative and the positive by cultivating aspects of our lives that support us when the going gets (and stays) tough. It’s about making a commitment to caring for yourself as deeply and seriously as you care for the animals. Because if you don’t, if you allow yourself to become mentally and physically run down, mired in negativity, sadness, and anger, then you can’t do your job all that well.

If you’re saying to yourself: “I don’t have time for self-care. The animals need me constantly!” I want you listen up:

Research shows that there is a correlation between ethical violations and Compassion Fatigue.  Which means Compassion Fatigue can cause us to cause harm to others.

That means: YOU ARE ETHICALLY OBLIGATED TO TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.

When we disregard our own needs in order to keep giving to others it’s not just bad for us, it’s unethical.  So if you think that being a good caretaker means caring until you collapse you are wrong. In order to be a good caretaker, you must take care of yourself so that you can care for others properly. Otherwise, you have the potential to harm those that you are caring for.

Let me say this again: it is UNETHICAL TO NEGLECT SELF CARE. So it’s not indulgent to take care of yourself. It’s not a sign of weakness. It takes courage to commit to self-care. It’s the right thing to do. It’s not optional.

What does self-care even look like? It’s going to be personal for each one of us, but generally self-care and building resiliency looks like: setting boundaries, saying no, working less, exercising, eating well, going to therapy or a support group, cultivating friendships, monitoring our stress levels daily, stretching, journaling, having hobbies, breathing exercises, talking with a trusted friend at work, laughing, having interests outside of animal welfare, sleeping, allowing yourself to feel grief, dancing, meditating, practicing gratitude and positive thinking, and separating our work life from our personal life.

Regularly doing these acts of self-care builds resilience.  People who are resilient are able to bounce back from adversity, stress, and the heartache of getting a dog you loved returned to you abused and broken. It helps you bounce back from euthanizing animals.

Research shows us another key to building resiliency and fighting Compassion Fatigue: experiencing Compassion Satisfaction. All of us who have worked with animals have known Compassion Satisfaction (CS). That’s the joy in our job.

CS happens when you care for an injured animal until they are well again. CS comes from doing a wonderful adoption for a long term resident. CS comes from passing out peanut butter Kongs and listening to a choir of muffled, content slurps. CS is when you help a caring family keep the dog they love by connecting them to affordable resources. CS is what keeps us going, helps us balance out the negative, and see the big picture. But we can’t hold on to the positive aspects of CS without self-care.

If we really want to make progress in animal sheltering, then we have to make teaching and supporting self-care a foundation of our work. Entire organizations can be affected by Compassion Fatigue. And the organization itself can cause stressors for employees that contribute to fatigue and burnout, such as improper management, unclear protocols, lack of training, low pay, being understaffed, etc.

If we want shelter workers to do their best work, organizations and their management have to be aware of these issues and work to help staff and volunteers to identify healthy coping strategies and encourage them to build resiliency. We have to make this non-negotiable and as important as any other part of their training, since neglecting self-care has negative consequences for our work. It has to be a part of the culture of our profession: prioritizing self-care, so we can care for others.

If we want to save more lives, organizations will have to combat the plague of Compassion Fatigue and Burnout that wipes out entire groups of new, enthusiastic, caring, shelter workers before they even have a chance to make a lasting impact for the animals.

As a profession we have to prioritize caring for the caregivers by investing time and resources into this issue. We can’t just expect them to suck it up, stay positive, and do good work. I sure couldn’t. At the end the only way I knew how to help myself was to pick up the pen and write my resignation letter. The day I dropped it off on my mangers desk I knew, even though I felt terrible quitting, it was an act of self-care.



PDF Version for easy printing and sharing available here: Self Care Is Not Optional

Despite being way too long, this blog only scratches the surface. For more concrete resources, please see my interview with Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project Founder Patrica Smith. Visit her website and books for more information, including self-tests you can take to assess yourself.

Compassion Fatigue and Burnout affects professional caregivers of all kinds (as well as those that are caring for loved ones in their personal lives). This includes vet techs, individuals who live with challenging or sick dogs, dog trainers, animal control officers, and volunteers. What I wrote about here applies to all of us who are taking care of animals or people. Self-care is not optional for any of us.

And finally, because this had such an impact on me personally, this summer I became a Certified Compassion Fatigue Educator. I’m not sure what that means for me exactly, but it’s a path I’m happy to walk down (without a map!). If you want to share your experiences with Compassion Fatigue, email me. I’m particularly interested to hear from those of you that made it through the valley of CF and found ways to be resilient in the animal sheltering world. 

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83 Comments Post a comment
  1. HERMAN'S HOPE #

    Been there. Cried myself numb.Took years to get “right” again.

    September 7, 2013
  2. Karen Zorn #

    Loved this article on CF and I rescue as well as run a petsitting business and can totally relate.  Thanks so much for putting this out there.

    Karen Z. PetPals Pet Sitting

    ________________________________

    September 7, 2013
  3. Cindy #

    I almost daily thank people who work in shelters because I can’t. I hate people as it is. Put me some place where I can see the results of human stupidity? Bad idea. So THANK YOU for caring enough to work with animals and for recognizing when you couldn’t do it any more.

    September 7, 2013
  4. Marla #

    Thanks I have been volunteering at a shelter for over 7 years. I try not to be there when it is open to the public. I would probable grab some of the people by the neck and strangle them(the ones that bring in old or sick pets) I am amazed how wonderful our shelter workers are. We have a big turnover though. I try not to get angry when a great dog is put down for reasons i do not understand. I have almost quit a number of times. Anyway our shelter workers are amazing,

    September 7, 2013
    • Jeremy #

      Have you tried talking to your shelter workers to ask them why a dog has been euthanased? I work in a shelter as part of the behaviour team and am one of the three people directly responsibly for the euthanasia decision; it always frustrates me and upsets me when volunteers behind my back will talk about a dog that we have euthanased saying that it is a great dog and did not deserve that, when in fact they may not have seen what I saw in the behaviour test. However, I am always 100% transparent and only to happy to sit down with a volunteer both before and after euthanasia and discuss the dog’s issues. Unfortunately no matter how lovely a dog is, sometimes it cannot be rehomed–a serious resource guarder, for instance. It is my direct responsibility to ensure that every dog that is adopted is safe to the public, and not every dog is.

      October 10, 2013
  5. Thank you for this amazing post. I recently created a website and Facebook page dedicated to compassion fatigue and loss for those who work with animals. There aren’t a lot of resources out there for us. This article will absolutely become a permanent link on my page, it just says it all perfectly. I look forward to future posts.

    Sarah
    Wrong Side of the Rainbow

    September 7, 2013
    • Thank you for raising awareness about compassion fatigue Sarah – I ‘liked’ your Facebook page!

      September 11, 2013
  6. Janice Tuzcan #

    I volunteer @ a open shelter and I can certainly relate to your blog …the volunteers @ our shelter were given the opportunity to have a social worker Lucy come in monthly and meet with us and let us open up to what we were feeling about volunteering at the shelter …everything that was said in the meetings was kept within the meeting … no staff were at the meetings …it was helpful to have a place to open up without the fear of retribution from staff or management .

    September 7, 2013
    • That’s wonderful Janice. I’m so glad this opportunity was provided for the volunteers. And it’s great that they separated staff from volunteers. Often, these two groups can contribute to each other’s stress, so it’s important for volunteers and staff (as well as management and staff) to have different support groups.

      September 11, 2013
      • Rather than separating staff and volunteers, my choice would be to address the issues that are causing stress between the two groups. Ignoring it only drives a wedge between the two groups and increases stress. To make the most of your volunteers, you really need to do your best to think of them as unpaid staff – sometimes annoying, hard to manage pseudo-staff – but an important part of your shelter team.

        September 11, 2013
        • In terms of dealing with Compassion Fatigue in a support group setting or seminar, it’s recommended that groups that may contribute to one another’s stress levels be separated (volunteers/staff, management/staff, etc.). Issues need to be dealt with, of course. But there are other ways and times to address issues head-on in a constructive, calm manner. Support groups and Compassion Fatigue seminars held at one organization generally aren’t it, since they need to be safe, open places where everyone feels comfortable sharing their feelings and focusing on how they can take better care of themselves.

          September 11, 2013
  7. Wonderful post! Sent it on to everyone at work and our contacts at the local shelter. Thank you very much.

    September 7, 2013
  8. Marjie Douty #

    I don’t work in a shelter. I’m a pet parent who has adopted many rescues over the years. I currently have two. We spend a lot of time at the shelter where they were adopted. We go for training, vet care, flea and heartworm medication, to visit the pet shop there. and we know a lot of the shelter workers. and I know their jobs suck sometimes. But we say hello and talk to them and we donate stuff, food and blankets and toys. I want to help the staff and the animals. We do our best. I can’t adopt all the homeless dogs just like they can’t save them all. I hope our small kindnesses are helpful to the humans and the animals. they have been a great support for me in raising my dogs. Maybe I should let them know that somehow?

    September 8, 2013
    • Marjie, hearing from happy adopters is a huge part of the “compassion satisfaction” shelter and rescue workers get from their jobs. If you can share an update or a thank you letter, I’m sure it will go far in lifting spirits and helping the staff bounce back from some of the tougher aspects of their work. Thank you for adopting, donating, and caring!

      September 8, 2013
  9. Dewitt #

    Good article. Thanks for writing it. You might consider submitting it to Animal Sheltering Magazine. One additional thought – it is a responsibility of shelter management to help their staff (both paid and volunteer) understand and manage the stresses that lead to CF and burnout. Doing so falls under the category of “Personnel Management and Leadership”. Sadly, unless shelter management takes a proactive stance regarding CF and burnout, most shelter staff will only learn about it AFTER they go through it.

    September 8, 2013
    • Agreed! Tune in next week for an interview with the founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project where we’ll address management’s responsibilities more directly.

      September 8, 2013
  10. Thank you for this post. I have been running training classes for the past 2 1/2 yrs. and have met and worked with hundreds of people and their dogs. Many nights I come home from work tired, angry, frustrated, sad, almost hating people for being so stupid, uncaring, selfish, lazy, or cruel. I have worked with dogs for one or two sessions and then get a phone call that they are not coming back to class because they were returned to the shelter. I think about those dogs and can’t help feeling like I failed because I couldn’t make the people keep them and give them what they needed – love, patience and some time. I think the more I love the dogs – the more I despise the people. It is hard to be as compassionate to the humans. I help rescues and shelters by donating money and food and cross-posting adoptable dogs. I can’t imagine the pain of the shelter volunteers who see these dogs every day. Bless them all.

    September 8, 2013
    • Dog trainers, especially those that work with dogs with serious behavior issues, are often affected by CF too. Just like shelter workers, they can have little control over the outcome of their work. Take good care of yourself Linda!

      September 11, 2013
  11. Gina #

    I think your article is wonderful and full of information and awareness that is important to get out there. You are right, it is long. I wanted to give you feedback that one of the affects it had on me is that I wore out just getting through the description of what it is like, before the part of what to do about it. I foster cats and am only on the edges of shelter life/work and don’t have a lot of practice with compassion or a limited amount to empatheticly open up. You did such a good job describing it all that I felt worn down and tired and just wanted to turn away and not deal with gathering the rest of the info. I think an edited version of this would be a good resource in the future. I want this sort of advice/awareness to be available and it would be more than sad if some of the people in most need of this sort of thing end up not being able to get through it due to connecting to it too well. I think it is funny that I basically got compassionate fatigue by proxy from reading someone else’s experience of compassionate fatigue and connecting to it well.

    Actual shelter workers might respond better to the full post and a shorter version might be good for volunteers or people just starting.

    September 8, 2013
    • Totally understand Gina. Shelter workers can access short versions of the definitions, what to do about it, and other helpful resources at the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project: http://www.compassionfatigue.org/

      And next week there will be a shorter, more direct interview with the group’s founder Patrica Smith.

      September 8, 2013
  12. Lorrie #

    Problem with this perspective is that it doesn’t address the reality that (this shelter) exploits the compassion and commitment of staff; each is left to fend for themselves regarding self-regulation.
    This is not exclusively an individual issue; it is systemic and organizational – misalignment of (this shelter’s) core values and practices. If they really cared about staff (regardless of motivation), they would work to bring their practices more into alignment with the implicit belief that “we really value of staff.” This would be evidenced by increased opportunities for professional development, creating a more supportive work environment, increased compensation package, a stop to taking advantage of p/t staff, etc

    September 8, 2013
    • Hey friend! You’re right that it’s more than just an individual issue. I’m sorry if that didn’t come across in the blog. Next week, when I share an interview with an expert in CF, we’ll talk more about management’s role. What I really wanted to get across here is the importance of prioritizing self-care and that shelter staff can’t be expected to do a better job if they aren’t being taught the importance of self-care and supported in that practice. In some cases, self-care means leaving dysfunctional organizations that aren’t able to support them in that regard.

      September 8, 2013
      • I’m looking forward to the interview with founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project and more discussion of management’s responsibilities. BUT, you are very right that nobody cares more about your mental health than you should. Years and years ago I took a scuba course and the thing I remember most from it is the instructor talking about how often someone goes out to rescue a drowning person and ends up drowning themselves. It hit me that pretty much everywhere in life (jobs, relationships, etc.), you aren’t helping the situation and won’t be able to help anywhere else if you end up drowning yourself.

        September 8, 2013
      • Lorrie #

        amen to that – looking forward to next installment – tks

        September 8, 2013
      • HERMAN'S HOPE #

        I’ve spent a lot of years on the rescue end, so this is interesting for me. Thanks for this insight.

        September 8, 2013
  13. wildewmn #

    Wonderful article, and a great reminder that if you don’t take care of yourself, you’re not going to be able to help the animals you care so much about. Thank you for writing this. Off to share on FB.

    September 9, 2013
  14. Karen #

    Thank you just isn’t enough. I have searched a long time for resources on CF without much luck. So very grateful to have come across your blog which someone posted on the Shelter Trainers Yahoo Group recently. I am REALLY looking forward to the upcoming interview!

    September 9, 2013
  15. Wonderful write. Thank you so much! I’m speechless and will be re-reading this many times to take it all in.

    September 9, 2013
  16. A reblogué ceci sur Le Grand Câlin and commented:
    Vous êtes éthiquement obligés de prendre soins de vous.
    Excellent texte (en anglais)

    September 9, 2013
  17. Christine #

    Guess I am different than most. After being in rescue groups for over 18 years, I just grew to despise many in the human race for their lack of compassion for the VOICELESS. We walk among some very cold hearted people.

    September 9, 2013
    • Jill #

      Christine, after seeing all of the horrible things done to these animals, I too want to hate people. But then I remember the people like you and Jessica and all of the other caregivers out there, and the majority of people who went to the shelter to save an animal and provided it a wonderful life, and I try to focus on how the good outnumbers the bad. My two rescued pets were both abused. That gives me a choice on how I spend my energy — hating the people who abused them (which I do) or loving the people who gave them the second chance they needed so I could meet them and bring them into my life. I try really hard to stay with the second approach.

      September 9, 2013
      • Jill, Thank you for being the kind of loving adopter that every shelter worker dreams of for the animals in their care. Thinking of families like yours has always helped me to keep the negative in perspective (not always easy to do, but it’s possible). As horrible as some people are, there are so many wonderful people who do right by the animals. Like you. Sadie and Pixie (and the kitties) may have seen the worst of humans at one point in their lives, but then they got the absolute best through you. Thanks for reminding us that we can choose, even if it’s challenging, where we focus our energy.

        September 9, 2013
  18. A great post—thank you for sharing your experience in a way that is easy for someone who has 4 rescued dogs to understand. And thank you for all that you did and all that you still do for the animals and now for people through your certification. Know that you have and do make a difference.

    September 9, 2013
  19. Cheryl Rice #

    I definitely related to much of what you’ve written, including the guilt I felt when I quit the shelter. My love for the animals kept me from seeing that I was subjecting myself to a very destructive, dysfunctional working situation. I didn’t realize the full effect it had on my health (both physical and mental) until I left. I still support the shelter and its mission, but will have to learn to do it in a way that’s healthier for me.

    September 9, 2013
  20. Gayle Hunter #

    You could seriously be talking directly to me about exactly where I am emotionally. I need this article where I can read it over and over – or even just tattooing the phrase self-care is not an option, somewhere I can’t help but see it. Thanks for writing this.

    September 9, 2013
  21. Lisa #

    Wonderful! I have been at the Humane Society for 5 years. CF has happened to friends and everyone eventually feels the symptoms. I will be passing this around in hopes to help others.

    September 9, 2013
  22. Liz #

    Thank you for this wonderful posting. It rings very close to home for me, although I don’t work with shelters (although I have and have several rescued pets). I work for a non-profit that works with children who have been removed from their families due to abuse and neglect. Our volunteers deal with many of the same issues – those who are vulnerable and cannot speak for themselves. While we speak to our volunteers about self care, I believe your article brings home the importance in a very real way. I am going to share this with them in them in the hopes that they will see how truly important it is.

    September 9, 2013
  23. Alison C. #

    Thank you for noting at the bottom of this post that individuals living with sick dogs can suffer from CF. I recently lost a dog to cancer, after we had been fighting it for nearly two years. When he passed away, of course I felt grief, but I also felt relief and release, followed immediately by guilt. Now I can see that I likely had some beginning signs of CF, and the relief certainly was NOT that my beloved dog had died, but that we both were no longer so burdened by the work, fear and uncertainty of treating his cancer. Also, I wrote thank you notes to the 2 vets that we worked with (one was our regular vet, the other was the cancer vet), and I’m so happy that I did that. Maybe those notes will help provide some of the CS you talk about. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to work in a vet’s office.

    So I guess my point is that your article, while focusing on shelter workers, can certainly apply to many others and should be read by anyone who works with animals. Thanks for a great post.

    September 9, 2013
    • I’m sorry for your loss Alison. Your relief at the end of your dog’s suffering (and your own suffering) is normal and I’m glad you know it’s nothing to feel guilty about now. And I have no doubt that your vets appreciated the kind notes you sent and that they helped to lift their spirits as well.

      September 11, 2013
  24. Theresa #

    A friend posted this article, and I was drawn in by the title. I too work at a shelter and am experiencing extreme compassion fatigue these days (these years?). Your article resonated with me, and I don’t even work with animals- I work at a homeless shelter. The families are mostly survivors of domestic violence, and all have experienced trauma of some kind or another. Hearing the stories, supporting them, having compassion, and knowing there are not enough hours in the day or the work-week- these take a toll on any service worker. I’d never considered the animal shelter’s view on this, but so many of the ideas relate to the work we social workers do. Thanks for your insights.

    September 9, 2013
  25. Reblogged this on Zerobites Dog Training.

    September 10, 2013
  26. Laura #

    It’s not too long. It’s excellent. I work in mental health with humans and witness frequent episodes of CF all around me.I always say to the young people I supervise ; You cannot help someone into the lifeboat, unless you are steady in the lifeboat yourself.

    September 10, 2013
    • So very true. Thank you for teaching young people this critical lesson. We all need to hear it early and often.

      September 11, 2013
  27. gaye lower #

    wonderful article David, and Im very proud to say I shared a lot of those years at the shelter with you working for the animals, and yes you do feel burnt out and grow to hate your job, best wishes for your new job and I will always remember you as one of the animal workers that truly did care and work hard for the animals.
    gaye.

    September 10, 2013
    • Hi Gaye, I’m not sure who David is, but I hope he reads your comment and knows how much you valued working with him. I’m sure he’ll appreciate your kind words! – Jessica

      September 10, 2013
  28. Soo Stewart #

    This was so well written I will be keeping it and then printing to give to the shelter and rescue people that I meet – with your name and website listed. I’ll also be sharing on FB – I think that anyone involved in rescue or in other empathic “trades” will benefit from reading this.

    September 10, 2013
  29. Thank you so much for writing this. It was sent out via email to our entire shelter staff yesterday.

    September 10, 2013
  30. Brilliantly written. I made a conscious decision one year ago that this month, September 2013 would be the last of my 14 years of rescue. It has been wonderful adventure where I have placed 1500 Poodles and their mixes and have met some very caring people who love them. It’s now time to hang up my “rescue shoes” and start a new path. Thank you for writing this incredible article.

    September 10, 2013
  31. We’ve been doing short versions of posts on Compassion Fatigue in shelter workers on our blog. I heard the words a few months ago from another acupuncturist who is hoping to get into shelters and do acupuncture for shelter workers and volunteers. I think her desire is invaluable in assisting people. The protocol I tend to think of is the one used by Acupuncturists without Borders and the healing stories of free clinics for veterans with PTSD and those in Haiti are just amazing.

    I’m still learning about the western/psychological aspects of this but hope to write more about the energetic aspect from an acupuncturists point of view. I will definitely be sending readers here this week though.

    September 10, 2013
    • Providing awareness (through your blog) and a healing service like acupuncture are both wonderful ways to support shelter staff and volunteers in their work. Thank you!

      September 11, 2013
  32. After over five years of producing a monthly Large Animal Rescue newsletter I had to call it quits. It was getting so bad, toward the end, that I would put it off for days, finally guilting myself into doing it, then have nightmares and stomach aches for days after. It was the carnage and chaos and the dregs of society that did horrible things to animals (and that range is broad since I’m vegan). I took off the summer to decide, but I’m so glad I made the choice to get out while I was still sane. Being empathic is tough but I’d rather be this way!

    September 10, 2013
  33. Mary Jo Perlongo #

    This was a very timely and helpful article. Although I am not a shelter worker, I am a social worker; I just completed my 33rd year in the helping professions. Yep. 33. Gulp. It’s been a long, sometimes strange, but always interesting experience. I can relate to many things; the best advise I have EVER heard? YOU ARE ETHICALLY OBLIGATED TO TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF…thanks for that. I needed it.

    September 10, 2013
    • You are so welcome! Thank you for 33+ years of helping others. You’re a rock star Mary Jo!

      September 10, 2013
  34. Bites and Tales #

    Thank you so much for this wonderful article! I found it immensely helpful and informative. I work as a Small Animal Massage Practitioner; but, in my case, the source of potential CF stems from caring for my dog. He has severe allergies (within 5 minutes of a bee sting he went into shock and cardiac arrest) and suffers from epilepsy. Not for a moment do I regret adopting him, but his care requirements can be emotionally draining. I found this article very helpful in putting things into perspective and not feeling so guilty.

    September 10, 2013
    • CF absolutely affects those of us that live with dogs who have serious medical issues and/or behavioral issues. I’m so glad this was helpful for you. I’m wishing you and your dog well!

      September 10, 2013
  35. Sam #

    Great article. I’ve worked as a caregiver at an open admission shelter for five and half years and I’ve been struggling with compassion fatigue for a year or so of that. The compassion fatigue coupled with anxiety had prompted me to try and seek professional help but I found I could not afford it, so I’m always very appreciative when I come across articles and blogs that address the issue.

    September 11, 2013
  36. Judi #

    Thank you for writing this. I have been there too. I still have nightmares about some of the poor dogs that we had to put down. It was a heartbreaking thankless job.

    September 11, 2013
  37. Kellie #

    Thanks for writing this. Those of us in the animal welfare world appreciate it.

    September 11, 2013
  38. Winnie Kelly #

    Wow — this article has brought me to a whole new level of understanding about where I am personally, after 12 years in animal services. I’ve heard all this before (and even preached it to other people) but somewhere in my head I was always telling myself that it didn’t apply to me, that somehow I had more of an obligation to give than anyone else, or something. (I know, dumb, yes?!) I can’t thank you enough for writing this — life-saving. I felt like I was completely DONE.

    September 11, 2013
    • Not dumb at all. I think that’s the problem. All of us think we’re the exception to the rule of self-care! But there is no finish line to this hard race, so if we want to continue to give to others, we have to pace ourselves through self-care. Be well and fill up your own tank – you deserve care too Winnie!

      September 11, 2013
  39. fir3dragon #

    This is brilliant. Thank you for writing it, and thank you for becoming a Compassion Fatigue Educator! So many people need this work. I think it’s broadly applicable among many non-profit professions in addition to caregivers who work with people & animals. Thank you!

    September 11, 2013
  40. I SO NEEDED THIS ARTICLE

    September 11, 2013
  41. Heather #

    This not only applies to the veterinary and shelter world, but to doctors and government workers as well. Doctors especially. It’s hard to find a doc that really truly cares and doesn’t judge you. You can feel it in their demeanour they are so done for the day and just wanna hand you a prescription and be on your way. I remember also when I worked in the vet field I became very cold hearted some days just seeing the same kinda bs everyday. In the beginning I would cry when we had to euthanize a bunny that had been run over by a law mower and was barely alive, to by the end of that “career” fighting over who got to do the heart stick!! I’m ashamed. One if the reasons I’m not working as a vet assistant any longer. I agree sometimes you need to stop and reflect on who you were and who you have become. And if the person you have become is negative in any way, it’s time to get out.

    September 13, 2013
  42. Vera #

    A few intense years in cat rescue finished me. It took a few more years for me to feel strong again, and it was a long time before I could even consider helping. I now have walls up that keep me from becoming too involved. I do a little here and there but I’m not the same person I used to be. I’m too sensitive for this work. I’ve been forced by circumstances into helping family members the last few years and as sad as it has been, it’s good for me. I do love to help animals too but I’ll never jump in with both feet again. The disappointment I experienced in humans took a huge toll. I still don’t trust.

    September 15, 2013
  43. An excellent article. Thank you for this. x

    September 27, 2013
  44. MaryGrace #

    My emotional fatigue did not come from any animals at the shelter, but from the people who were in control of the lives of animals

    September 27, 2013
  45. Krissie Stephens #

    I suffered adrenal burn-out after 16 years in an abusive relationship. I had worked incessantly to avoid seeing the hurt I was feeling inside and then slept out of exhaustion. It took years to recover but thankfully I am.

    September 30, 2013
  46. Jill #

    I happened upon your words after leaving my position on the board of a foster-home based animal rescue. I had poured my heart and soul into the rescue for many years. Each year, gaining more and more responsibility. At first, it was amazing, a real high and I carried on living for that emotion. Then I started putting aside so many things so I could keep carrying on. I have two young boys, a husband, a dog of my own, a wonderful family and friends….a life without rescue. It came to the point, where I would spend my entire evening on the phone while my kids went about doing their own thing and my day spent running errands, vet runs, delivering supplies, so on and so on. My marriage nearly crumbled. I wasn’t prepared for the immense guilt from leaving the rescue, especially since they no longer seem to be interested in “me” anymore. I still work with the rescue on a regular basis. My roles have been divided up amongst other volunteers. And I am happy to say that I am beginning to feel the balance that I needed to keep myself healthy and my children and family on the right track. There were days, weeks where I couldn’t even look after the simplest things, like making supper, doing the laundry…even brushing my teeth in the morning. I hope that the time I give now to the rescue is enough to keep myself and those around me healthy and perhaps save a few cats and dogs as well.

    March 16, 2014
  47. You may want to check out the Human Design System…it will amaze you. You are probably a Projector like me….practically all Projectors, if they don`t follow their coping stategy, experience burn-out/adrenal fatigue in mid-life and some have even died!

    March 17, 2014
  48. Thank you for this article. After several years of working as an In-Home Carer, and as a shelter worker in two different shelters, all very demanding jobs, I know I suffered from CF and burn-out. (I didn’t know then–I just felt somehow weak and broken.) That was several years ago, and I still feel easily shaken and a frequent need to withdraw from the world. In both professional relationships and friendships I often end up feeling used, because I am generally willing to pitch in when I see a need. Some people exploit this, even unknowingly–I become the person doing the jobs no one else wants. I actually once heard one co-worker say to another “Just ask Kirsten to do it.” Boundary-setting does not come naturally to me, so instead I think I sort of break down when I am shouldering too much without enough support. I’ve been working on this one, and articles like this help.

    September 13, 2014
  49. I’ve only recently started working in a shelter (<2 months) and I'm already having a really tough time. But I feel like I'm giving up if I leave. Thanks for this.

    September 17, 2014
    • Hi Brenda, I’m sorry to hear it’s been tough so far – I understand completely.

      If you’re working full time and it’s possible to do so, moving to part time hours can be a big help in reducing stress and compassion fatigue.

      Please take care of yourself (visit compassionfatigue.org for more info).

      There are many ways to help animals – working in the shelter is just one of them – so if leaving is the right choice for you, please know that it’s not giving up. It’s just taking a step back to figure out a different approach that will work better for you.

      Wishing you well,
      Jessica

      September 17, 2014
      • Thanks for your kind words–it’s great to get some perspective from others who have been in this situation! I am classed as part time, but typically work 29-34 hours a week. The hardest part is that the job is with me ALL THE TIME. When I’m not at work, I’m constantly logging in to our online database to see who was euthanized, how many more animals were brought in and if anyone was adopted. It’s a bit obsessive, or more than a bit, and I have a hard time keeping myself from doing this! It feels like there is too much stick, not enough carrot. I think you’re right–I should probably consider alternatives. Thanks again.

        September 19, 2014

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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