I Think I Have Compassion Fatigue – Now What?

This article is a follow up to the one I wrote previously on how animal care professionals are impacted by compassion fatigue. If you’re an animal care worker and think you’re experiencing compassion fatigue symptoms, it’s important to address them. Ignoring them can make them worse and cause negative impacts on your work and personal life. As a refresher, these are four signs that you may be experiencing compassion fatigue that I referenced in my previous article:

  1. Physical, emotional, or spiritual exhaustion from working with animals. 
  2. Regular exposure to situations that involve the suffering of animals in your care.
  3. The inability to alleviate the animals’ suffering through direct care or other indirect actions.
  4. Development of a bond with the animal(s) in your care.
  5. Decreased ability to experience satisfaction or joy professionally or personally.

For more details on the serious effects of compassion fatigue on animal care professionals, please check out the previous article.

Although most of the research conducted on managing and alleviating compassion fatigue has been conducted with health care professionals, these suggestions can also be used in the animal caregiving community.

Four specific factors help manage and alleviate symptoms of compassion fatigue: Detachment, self-care, sense of satisfaction, and social support (Ludick & Figley, 2017).

Detachment is the ability to separate or detach oneself from work and/or the situation that is causing you distress. For example, perhaps you haven’t taken a vacation or even taken a day off work in a long time. Being able to step away and take a break is critical to your well-being. I know it’s not easy. I know many of you are thinking, “but if I’m not there, who will take care of or save the animals?” I want to ask you to think about it from a different perspective. What happens if you aren’t there because you’re not well (emotionally, mentally, or physically)? How can you take care of the animals who need you? The animals you care for need you to be healthy. To do this, you must find time to detach and take a break.

Self-care is a big part of detaching and taking a break. Self-care is different for everyone. For some of us, it equates to a massage or taking a yoga class. For others, it’s a walk outside in nature or going out for a run. It is whatever you need to do to take care of yourself, to refresh yourself, relax, and recharge your batteries. By doing this, you can better manage the emotional toll of animal caregiving and decrease your risk of experiencing compassion fatigue symptoms.

Sense of satisfaction is related to how satisfied you are with your work, or more specifically, with the work you’re doing with animals. Often difficult or toxic work environments can contribute to compassion fatigue because they decrease one’s satisfaction with their work-life. If you feel supported in the organization where you’re providing animal care and feel you have adequate training, you’re more likely to be satisfied and experience joy and contentment. Ask yourself how happy you are with your work environment. If you aren’t getting what you need, who can you talk to about making changes to increase your satisfaction? Or, is there another location you can work or volunteer so that you have a more peaceful and productive work environment?

Social support is your support system of friends, colleagues, and family members you can turn to when things get difficult. Who do you turn to for help when you’ve had a bad day? Do you have a group of friends or colleagues who understand what makes animal care work difficult and also what makes it so rewarding? These are the people you want to reach out to and get support from when you’re feeling stressed, tired, and overwhelmed. If your support system isn’t robust enough to provide the help you need, I encourage you to seek professional support from a counselor or someone who is trained to help individuals experiencing compassion fatigue.

Although these four suggestions are relatively basic and straightforward, they are not necessarily easy. And, just because they are basic and appear simple, their importance shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s critical to manage your stress and the associated symptoms of compassion fatigue. By taking care of yourself and making your well-being a top priority, you will be able to provide the best care for the animals for the long term. Remember, the animals need you to be at your best. So, do your best for yourself so you can be your best for them! 

Reference:

Ludick, M., & Figley, C. R. (2017). Toward a mechanism for secondary trauma induction and reduction: Reimagining a theory of secondary traumatic stress. Traumatology23(1), 112–123. https://doi.org/10.1037/trm0000096

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