Lately I have sometimes felt sad. Nothing I could put my finger on, just a sense of hopelessness. Pictures on Facebook were making me cry. Stories of loss and grief and pain were leaving me feeling panicked. The adoption of one of our birds (a really good thing) had me sobbing in my office. I didn’t have a clue what was going on. Did I need huge doses of antidepressants? It wasn’t until I read an article about Compassion Fatigue (CF) that I finally figured it out.
In my working life I manage the Parrot Department for the sanctuary. Each day I deal with phone calls from people who are tired of their birds. I work with parrots who have obviously been traumatized and abused. I offer information and resources to groups working with hoarders. I try and educate the general public, who really don’t have a clue about the plight of captive birds. There are too many birds needing placement, and not enough good adoptive homes to go around. It is wearing on me physically, emotionally and mentally.
According to Dr. Charles Figely from the Florida State University Traumatology Institute, “Compassion Fatigue is emotional exhaustion, caused by the stress of caring for traumatized or suffering animals or people”.
Studies show that animal care professionals are the #1 most vulnerable group to experience CF and burnout. Why? Because of the sheer number of animals that need help, who are suffering at the hands of humans. It doesn’t help that Facebook inundates us with stories of animals who have been abused, dogs on death row, birds killed in horrific ways, dog fighting/hoarding/puppy mill stories. Don’t get me wrong. It is important that we share those stories. But there comes a point when all the pain, all the suffering, starts to adversely affect us.
What causes burn-out? Experts tell us that being constantly exposed to the harsh painful realities of animal abuse can cause us to shut down emotionally. Some of the other triggers include:
- Never-ending volume of animals needing assistance
- Dealing with the ignorant public
- Trying to do all you can with limited resources
- Little or no life outside of work
The first step of dealing with CF is to realize what is going on. Recognizing the symptoms can help identify the problem and take steps to deal with it. Here is a list of common symptoms of the condition. (Please note that not all of these need to be present to be experiencing animal care burnout.)
- Decrease in pleasure
- Symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression
- Sleeplessness or nightmares
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Sense of losing “self”‘
- Sense of hopelessness or helplessness
- Feeling that our efforts are futile
- Wanting to quit
- Sudden anger or sadness
- Self-destructive behavior (drinking, drugs, over-eating, retail therapy)
- Loss of productivity
- Inability to focus
Many of us were taught from a very early age to think first of others. To put other’s needs before our own. To become “caregivers”. There is nothing wrong with taking care of others…as long as we remember to take of ourselves as well.
There is no knowing if or when you are at risk of “burn-out”. It isn’t more prevalent in men or women, it doesn’t affect anyone based on age or length of time in the field. It does tend to affect people who do not have a clear boundary between home and work. If you think you might be moving towards CF, there is a wonderful self-test that you can take at home:
And here is a hand-out designed for animal welfare professionals:
What it comes down to is being aware of what is going on, and taking steps to address it. Dr James Fogarty has some great suggestions, including:
- Talk about your experiences with enough detail that you can connect emotionally with what happened.
- Acknowledge and safely express your feelings
- Brainstorm options and take action
- Take care of yourself
The best way to take care of yourself is to make sure to eat well, exercise, get enough sleep and have interests outside of animal welfare. Make yourself leave the house and take part in social activities in the “real world”. Spend time with friends who are not involved in rescue. Get out and experience nature. Take a walk, with a dog or alone.
This blog is actually serving to help me with my own sense of burn-out. I am doing research about what can be done to deal with different problems, and it gives me a sense of power and control. Since my usual place in animal rescue is with birds, dealing with dog issues in a positive manner allows me to step away from my workday struggle to save and rehabilitate parrots.
When you start feeling like you can’t do enough to help, you need to take a step back and do something enjoyable for awhile. We can’t concentrate on the mountains we still have to climb…instead let’s take a moment to celebrate the ones we have already conquered.