Reading about compassion fatigue, there’s not much about animal rescue workers. That’s why I was so excited that someone would offer a course. Reading about it, I was extrapolating the various types of compassion fatigue that are studied to apply to shelter workers. I think the fatigue that rescue workers feel most closely parallels that of social workers working with abused children.
There are a number of reasons for this. Clearly, for many animal lovers, pets are surrogate children. They may not yet have children, they may not be able to have their own children or their children may have left home.
Social workers who were most prone to compassion fatigue had some sort of early childhood trauma that could be triggered and re-traumatized by the events of their work. Animal rescue workers are working with abandoned animals. As babies, humans cannot be abandoned and survive. They need others for every need they have, to get food, to stay clean, to remain hydrated, to stay safe. There is a primal part of our brain that is hardwired to fear abandonment. Each time we see an abandoned animal, those primal fears are re-triggered within us. What if we were helpless and lost without a home?
In this economy the plight of homeless animals can also trigger our own fears of homelessness even as adults. Each time that is triggered, that’s a minor trauma.
Of course, many shelter workers see and hear far worse and those things have their own triggers. Animal abuse or neglect may bring up issues of childhood abuse or neglect. It may also bring up issues around working with abused or neglected children in other professions, especially if the worker is a volunteer.
Acknowledging one’s own triggers can begin the process of healing. The Yogic healers often talk about recognition without judgement or trying to change. It means that the beginning of change is noticing and letting whatever is noticed be.
The next step is finding support. Volunteers who have worked together or alongside each other can be an invaluable way to process what has happened each shift. Talking and support is a huge key to whether or not someone suffers enduring compassion fatigue or moves on to continue working.
Finally, the number of hours worked made a huge difference. People who live and breathe the shelter life are at most risk. Finding time outside the shelters, limiting yourself to a certain number of hours (and not more than 40, which is a full-time job) can be very important. For those who work at shelters and feel a need to devote more hours, is it possible to mindfully be aware of which tasks impact you emotionally the most and limit those tasks each day? Even just creating a variety of tasks each week can be helpful in keeping one from concentrating on part of the work.
For those who think they only volunteer a little, remember foster care is a 24/7 job. Taking in a lot of fosters plus working at a shelter all year can all add up in terms of triggering compassion fatigue.
No one person can do it all. Sadly this is also an aspect that those who suffer from compassion fatigue are all too aware. The job is just too big. What you can do seems so important. However, it is also important to take good self-care. What you are doing is far too important not to.
- Know your triggers.
- Find Support
- Limit your tasks or at least create a balance of things that you like versus harder tasks.