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Posts from the ‘compassion fatigue’ Category

Please Stop Neglecting Yourself: You’re Too Important To Ignore

I just opened up this month’s issue of O Magazine. That’s right, I love me some Oprah.

They did a lovely feature where they gave makeovers to women who work as founders and program managers of nonprofits. They’re all caregivers in one way or another. I was stoked to see that Sara Alize Cross, founder of Badass Brooklyn Animal Rescue was one of the recipients and that her work on behalf of homeless pets was featured right along side those who run human-focused programs.

Her rescue, founded just two years ago, has saved more than 1,000 dogs. Pretty amazing. I was feeling happy, until I read this part of her interview:

The stress has taken it’s toll. “I’ve gained 25 pounds and have thousands of dollars in credit card debt”, she says. But she has no regrets,”Being able to alleviate suffering is incredibly empowering.”

That broke my heart. Then I read this:

“…I’m really going to try to take care of myself again.”

I felt a wee bit better when Sara acknowledged that she has to make her own needs a priority again. Because the truth is: if helping others is your jam, your own needs have to come first. Not in a selfish, narcissistic way, but in a Put-Your-Own-Oxygen-Mask-On-First sort of way. Self-care is critical to the work of caring for others.

I’ve written about this before. I’m writing about it again because I feel like this notion of self care bucks up against some deeply entrenched ideas we all have about what giving and caring for others is supposed to feel like.

In general, our culture promotes exhaustion, over-extension, and lack of self care as stuff that goes hand-in-hand with helping others. So we wind up wearing our lack of self care as a badge of honor. Proof that we’re doing good work. As if what we do doesn’t count unless we suffer.

Sometimes I wonder: Do we think that it somehow proves  – to ourselves or to others – that we care the most about the animals, if we don’t care about ourselves at all?

So I’m writing this, not as a criticism of Sara or to point a finger at her in any way, but because her story resonated so deeply with me. Just like her, I gained 25 pounds and compromised my financial health when I was working at an animal shelter (and later volunteering with an animal welfare group). I too felt empowered by my work, but eventually I became totally depleted. I kept putting off my own self care. It was as if I believed there was some magic, perfect day in the future where I’d suddenly have free time and everyone else’s needs were totally taken care of and then I could handle my own stuff.  Only that’s a day that never comes – for anyone. Not me and not you either.

Since I didn’t stop to take care of myself, I burned out.  And I can’t stand to see others on the same path I was on.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful – as always – for all of you who are on the front lines, taking care of the animals. So, I’m asking that you please please please take care of yourselves. The work you do is so important. You are important. We need you to stick around.

Make yourself a priority. Set boundaries. Say no sometimes. That means sometimes you won’t be able to help an animal or person in need right now. But it will mean that, down the road, you’ll still be around and can help someone else. Try to take the long view.

Know this: You can’t save them all. Or do it alone. Or do it all right now.  No one can.

Neglecting your own needs in order to take care of others isn’t a sustainable plan. You need to fill up your own tank – every day and in healthy ways – in order to give to others day after day.

If you don’t take care of your own needs, you might be a hero, but for only for a very short time. Find ways to take back some of your energy for you, so that you can do great things for a long, long time to come.

You know what I would love to read in O Magazine one day? A founder of an animal rescue who says this:

“I realized that in order to continue doing this important work, I needed to set boundaries and take care of myself first. I exercise, eat right, stay within my budget, and take regular time off to restore myself. I may not be able to help as many animals as I’d like to this way, but because I’m taking care of myself I’m going to be able to keep giving for a long, long time.”

I’d love to see caregivers celebrated – not just for the amazing work they do – but also because they model a healthy balance between giving to others and giving to themselves. I hope one day our culture promotes physical, mental, and spiritual health as something that goes hand-in-hand with caregiving. When working to alleviate the suffering of others and ourselves is considered of equal importance.


P.S. Sara, if you’re reading this: you looked smoking hot in both photos! Go on with your bad self!



Read more:

How to avoid burnout or a breakdown from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center

My own story of burnout and leaving the animal shelter

What is Compassion Fatigue? 

Simple Self-Care Tips for Caregivers

Books that might be helpful

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Team Future Us Challenge

This morning I got a surprise email from someone I know really well. It made me laugh and then my face leaked a little. Even though it was only three sentences long, the email left me feeling cared for and encouraged.

The message ended with:

p.s. you will figure this out!

Who’s writing me such nice emails? Who knows how much time I spend trying to figure it out (“it” being a synonym for my life/my career/the fate of the world/the plot of Homeland)? And that I need to be confident in myself and then learn to let it go?

I’ll tell you who: Me.

Yep, not only do I walk around talking to myself all day, but now I write to myself too.

That’s because I discovered FutureMe.org

future me



It’s the most simple, brilliant idea ever. You write yourself an email and schedule it to be delivered to yourself some time in the future.

You might think it’s dumb to write yourself because you’re soooo smart that you’d never forget what you wrote to yourself in the first place, so duh, who cares if you get an email saying stuff you already knew.

Nope. I completely forgot that I wrote that email. Given, I forget to put on real pants some days, but I’m willing to wager that most people totally forget (the email, not their pants). And more importantly, everyone probably forgets what they actually wrote. The content will be a surprise. Wheee!

Think of how helpful this could be. You could:

  • write yourself monthly emails with your plan and motivations for taking care of yourself.
  • write a letter and schedule it to arrive the morning of a day you anticipate will be challenging. Like the first day of a dog training class you’re afraid of going to with your poopy-pants dog. Or a difficult anniversary.
  • write yourself a caring letter of encouragement, to be read on any random day in the future. You might be surprised at how good it feels to hear kind words, even when they’re your own.
  • write yourself random reminders like: Look Down. Are You Still Wearing Pajama Pants?



I really think this might be a good thing. I want you to do it. So let’s try it together. I’ll call it the Team Future Us Challenge.

This week take a few minutes to write yourselves a letter of encouragement. No beating yourself up. Keep it above the belt. Just write a few sentences to give Future You a boost.

Not sure what to write? Think of some area of your life that you’re struggling with and give yourself a pep talk. For example:

If you have a dog that is experiencing some challenges right now, like they lose their marbles every time a dog farts within 50 miles of your house, you could list a few things that you really love about your dog and a few ways that you’re pretty swell too, such as: Despite the fact that walking my dog is torture some times, I really do love him. He’s a world-class foot warmer, a champion floor cleaner, and an excellent karaoke audience. Also, I should give myself credit for trying so hard and stop comparing myself to everyone around me. I’m doing a really good job. Me and my dog RULE.

Or if your dog is perfect and cooks you brunch on the weekends, maybe you could write about some other aspect of your life where you feel a little less than perfect. Think about what Future You might need to hear. Be kind.

So here’s the Team Future Us Challenge part (that is dangerously close to being Team FU, huh?):

  • This week, write yourself a letter of encouragement.
  • Schedule the email to arrive two months from now on November 30th, 2013. That’s Thanksgiving Day weekend. I bet a lot of us could use a little bit of encouragement around the holidays, right?
  • In two months, we’ll all get an email from Past Us. I’ll post a blog here, so that those of us who want to can check in and celebrate our awesomeness together. Because sometimes peer pressure  a community can help motivate you to do something nice for yourself.



What do you say? Let’s go be nice to ourselves.

See US in two months!

Interview with Patricia Smith: Founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project

I recently wrote about my experience with Compassion Fatigue (CF) and burnout while working at an animal shelter. To learn more about CF, I reached out to Patricia Smith, founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project.

The mission of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project is, “To promote an awareness and understanding of Compassion Fatigue and its effect on caregivers.” Patricia is a certified Compassion Fatigue Specialist with more than 20 years of training experience. She writes, speaks and facilitates workshops for all caregiving professions.

The interview focuses mainly on CF in the animal sheltering world, but Patricia’s thoughtful answers are relevant to many of you.

Before we get rolling with the interview, let’s go over CF and burnout:

Compassion Fatigue is a secondary traumatic stress disorder resulting from caring for and helping traumatized or suffering people or animals. It is a reaction to the ongoing demands of being compassionate and effective in helping those that are suffering.

Compassion Fatigue is not the same as burnout, though they can co-exist. Burnout can happen to anyone, in any profession. It’s a cumulative process marked by emotional exhaustion and withdrawal associated with increased workload and institutional stress. It is not trauma-related. CF is specific to those who are working with a traumatized or suffering population.

If you work as a caregiver you may experience either CF and/or burnout. Compassion Fatigue has a more rapid onset while burnout emerges over time. The good news is that we can rebound from CF if we address and manage the symptoms (it’s more of a challenge to make a comeback from burnout).

Patricia writes in her book To Weep for a Stranger: “Compassion Fatigue is a set of symptoms, not a disease.”

Some of the symptoms of CF are:

  • Bottled up emotions
  • Loss of sense of humor
  • Chronic physical ailments such as gastrointestinal problems and recurrent colds
  • Substance abuse used to mask feelings
  • Sadness, apathy, no longer finds activities pleasurable
  • Poor self-care (i.e., hygiene, appearance)
  • Recurring nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts or images
  • Relationship issues and co-worker disputes
  • Poor decision making and problem solving skills
  • Voices excessive complaints about administrative functions

Compassion-Fatigue-Diagram


– Interview with Patricia Smith –


Jessica: Are the professional challenges that animal welfare workers face different than those in other helping professions (nurses, social workers, EMTs, etc)?

Patricia: While many people wouldn’t agree, I definitely believe animal welfare workers have more difficult challenges. This is due to the fact that most animal caregivers go into the work carrying a true love for animals in their hearts. They certainly don’t choose the work because of the extraordinary benefits or high salaries.

I found in my work as training and development manager at a shelter that people enter this field very idealistic, really hoping to make a difference in the way animals are cared for and treated. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for that bubble to burst. Working with an uninformed public only magnifies how little most people know about the human/animal bond. In the shelter where I worked, the turnover rate was extremely high. It didn’t take long before new employees figured out how disrespectful society is toward not only the animals, but shelter workers as well.

In other helping professions such as health care, social services, law enforcement, teaching or firefighting, the workers are respected and even idealized. This is not the case with shelter workers. Most people believe they are part of the problem since they euthanize animals.

Most often, animal caregivers leave shelter work beaten down and disillusioned. The ones who stay grow the proverbial “thick skin” in order to deal with the negativity they face, day in and day out.


J: I can’t help but think that if compassion fatigue and self-care were taken more seriously in animal sheltering, employee retention rates might be higher, which would allow for staff to stay in the field longer, gaining additional skills, and contributing at a higher level. Any thoughts on employee turnover in relation to compassion fatigue?

P: You have hit the nail on its head! As I mentioned in the first answer, yes, turnover rates are extremely high most likely due to compassion fatigue, so are Worker’s Comp claims and high absenteeism among staff.

I firmly believe when the majority of workers in an organization suffer the symptoms of compassion fatigue, the organization itself takes on the symptoms of organizational compassion fatigue. This includes high Worker’s Comp claims, absenteeism, inability of staff and management to collaborate, inability of staff to follow rules and regulations, and lack of flexibility and adaptability among workers.

Eventually this all affects the bottom line and lack of funds creates another layer of challenges: paying decent wages and benefits, lack of quality in the care the animals receive, inability to retain talented workers – the list is endless.


J: Does management need to make self-care a priority in order for it to be taken seriously?

P: Yes! Turning around a shelter environment that is plagued with compassion fatigued workers is the job of management. Those in leadership positions need to understand and recognize the symptoms of compassion fatigue in themselves and their staff. They must educate themselves and others – that is the first step.

I have been working on creating a new hire guide to compassion fatigue that would be included in every single new hire’s orientation. That is where we need to start – in the schools and in the orientation. If that could happen, animal welfare workers could go into their new positions with eyes wide open. I believe that would make a huge difference in retaining people who care and want to make a difference in the lives of animals.


J: Neglecting self-care care can have negative consequences for the people and animals we care for. For example, compassion fatigue has been linked with ethical violations and impaired functioning. Have you found that compassion fatigue impairs our ability to do good work? If so, are we obligated to take better care of ourselves?

P: Authentic, sustainable self-care is the ONLY answer to healthy caregiving in the helping professions – but mostly in animal welfare. If we are “other-directed,” which means we care for others before caring for ourselves, it takes hard work to learn to become “self-directed” so we can be healthy caregivers. Self direction means that we have personal boundaries, we are able to say “no” without feeling guilty, we know our limitations and we honor them, and we practice self care daily. We need to heal our deep hurts and not allow ourselves to be re-traumatized by the work we choose to do.

We learn to focus only on the mission of the organization – which in animal welfare is to rehabilitate each and every animal to the best of our ability to prepare them for a successful adoption – without drama, without the symptoms of compassion fatigue directing our actions and behaviors. This takes work!!

I think the reason this is all so important in animal welfare work in particular is because the animals pick up on our feelings, emotions and actions. They are super-sensitive to us and how we react to our environment, to each other, and to them. A calm, peaceful environment when they enter the shelter, veterinary office, or animal hospital sets the tone. Nervous, unhappy, frazzled animal workers = nervous, unhappy, frazzled animals. And they deserve so much more!


J: Is there anything we can learn from other helping professions about support and self-care? For example, social workers often participate in clinical supervision or peer group supervision where they can have a safe place to talk about their challenges and learn from one another. 

P: While there is much to be learned within all areas of the helping professions, I don’t believe the necessary sharing is actually happening. And that could be that each profession has its own challenges, difficulties and unique environments.

The one thing I have seen in my 14 years of doing this work is the increased interest in compassion fatigue, its definition, symptoms and causes. I am asked to present workshops often and mostly from animal welfare organizations. I think this is due to necessity. Many shelters are suffering from decline in staff, decline in funding, and increased numbers of animals in their care – I think maybe we are hitting the tipping point. It is painfully obvious that something needs to be done.

My job as founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project is “to get the word out.” Since my background is in journalism, I write on the subject as often as possible to reach as many people as possible. Others are now doing the same. I helped edit a wonderful new book entitled When Helping Hurts: Compassion Fatigue in the Veterinary Profession by Kathleen Ayl, PsyD. She did an excellent job of explaining compassion fatigue and how it affects animal welfare workers. While it is aimed at the veterinary profession, every animal caregiver will benefit reading this book. You, too, are doing an excellent job with this blog to get the word out.

We’ll get there – I know we will. I urge anyone reading this blog to organize a group and begin the much-needed dialogue about compassion fatigue and how your organization can support self-care for staff and management.

greater good

Engaging in regular self-care builds resiliency, which can help us bounce back from the stress of our jobs. The self-care tips above also cultivate happiness. Yay! Graphic from The Greater Good.


J: Some of my readers have started support groups for shelter workers or for families who are caregivers for dogs with behavior or medical issues. Do you have any tips for creating a successful support group?

P: This is excellent news. I have a number of tips to convey to your readers:

a) If you hold debriefing sessions following traumatic incidents at your organization, ask participants to share feelings and not details. Often when we are traumatized by situations such as animal abuse or animal hoarding, we want to give a voice to our pain and suffering. Unfortunately by doing that, we run the risk of re-traumatizing our fellow workers. Talk about how the incident made you feel – sad, frightened, alone, maybe even sick to your stomach. By sidetracking the gory details we are able to identify our feelings and, hopefully, apply our healthy coping skills to alleviate the pain and suffering we are feeling. Healthy coping skills include yoga, walking, massage, meditation, restful sleep, or seeking professional help if necessary. We can also turn to our animal companions for love, understanding and relief. Unhealthy coping skills include alcohol consumption, drug use, smoking, eating fast food, or isolating ourselves from others.

b) Select a facilitator who has both education and experience in managing a group. Managing traumatized/compassion fatigued people can be a challenge of the highest order. A good facilitator will be sure everyone knows the rules, everyone has a voice, and everyone is heard. Time management is also of the utmost importance.

c) Limit the number of participants. A group of 6-10 is ideal. Everyone deserves a chance to speak.

d) Never force a participant to take an active role if he/she declines. Some participants will be able to speak the first time, others will take longer. Be respectful of each person as an individual with specific needs and abilities.

e) Lay down the groundwork for success in the beginning by explaining the rules. If a participant shows an aggressive side or is disrespectful to others, the facilitator has the right to dismiss that person from the group.

 


J: Vet techs, rescue and shelter workers, animal control officers, individuals with pets who are suffering – compassion fatigue seems to touch so many of us. What can we do as individuals to reduce stress and avoid burnout?

P: You are exactly right. Compassion fatigue doesn’t play favorites.

First, are you at risk for compassion fatigue? One way to find out is to take Dr. Beth Hudnall Stamm’s Professional Quality of Life Self-Test (you can take the self-scoring test here). More than fifteen years ago, it was this test that revealed my own high levels of compassion fatigue. This knowledge led me on a path to healing, but it took quite awhile and a lot of education on my part.

I truly believe the number one thing we can do to reduce stress and avoid burnout is to be self aware. What causes our stress? What are the triggers? How do we manage our stress? Or do we?

Stress is too much – too much work, too much pressure, too many deadlines.

Burnout is not enough – not enough time, not enough resources, not enough energy.

When you add compassion fatigue to that mixture, you have a crippled individual – body, mind and spirit.

Self awareness begins with education. Not only learning about stress, burnout and compassion fatigue, but learning about ourselves. By creating a Personal Mission statement (what is my promise to myself?), and following up with a Self-Care plan (start with one goal and make yourself accountable), we can begin the path to healing that will make it possible to continue to make a difference in the lives of our wonderful furry little friends.


J: Beyond increasing awareness and education about Compassion Fatigue, what are a few concrete, everyday ways for shelter staff and management to incorporate and support self-care in their work place?

P: Beyond awareness and ongoing education about CF, individuals need to do the following six things:

  • Create work/home/me-time balance
  • Create a self care plan and make a commitment to yourself to follow through
  • Identify your triggers and stressors that create stress and burnout in your life/learn to manage them
  • Build a healthy support system
  • Take the CF self-tests regularly. CF is never healed and it can creep back into our lives.
  • Raise your Compassion Satisfaction levels.

Organizations can begin to help staff manage compassion fatigue by taking the following six steps:

  • Allow flexibility in work hours
  • Promote breaks and lunch time daily
  • Management must take part and have buy in. Staff learns by example; leadership leads by example.
  • Offer corporate/organization Wellness programs: yoga, exercise, Weight Watchers, smoking cessation programs, time management classes.
  • Hold debriefing sessions following traumatic events
  • Provide adequate pay, PTO, vacation time, and benefits. Make vacation mandatory.


Many thanks to Patricia for this interview and her invaluable work through the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project! Please visit her Facebook page and website for more resources, including self-assessment tests. Her book To Weep For a Stranger is available on Amazon. If you’re exploring CF, this is a great place to start!


For further resources on this subject, please see:

The Humane Society of the United States has a collection of articles on CF

Vets and Vet techs: Continuing education in CF available here.

The American Veterinary Medical Association’s thoughts on CF in the workplace.

12 Self Care Tips for Helpers from Françoise Mathieu

For caregivers of reactive, fearful, or aggressive dogs: TACT resources

11/2014 note: I have a whole new website and more compassion fatigue resources here now!

 

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 workers 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.”

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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. 

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.  11/2014 note: I now have a whole new website and more compassion fatigue resources here, including online classes and webinars to help you be well, while you do good work.