Last updated: 30 Mar, 2023
Published on: 30 Aug, 2021
What is compassion fatigue?
Compassion fatigue in rescue - Recognise the signs and ways to cope
You love your work. It’s part of who you are. It makes your heart full and yet, you also find it emotionally draining, overwhelming and stressful. Sound familiar?
Many who work in animal care love their work, and it also causes them pain.
Caring for sick, injured, neglected or even abused pets day in day out can take a toll and this toll is compassion fatigue.
What is compassion fatigue?
Compassion fatigue affects those who provide care to others. Anyone in a caregiving role is at risk. It can lead to feelings of apathy, guilt, anger, frustration, and depression. It can also lead to wanting to leave rescue altogether.
What are the signs of compassion fatigue?
Compassion fatigue consists of two separate factors - Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) and burnout. The first factor, STS, is associated with secondary exposure to a traumatic event. For example, caring for a pet that is seriously hurt or ill or exposure to euthanasia.
The signs of STS include being preoccupied with thoughts of pets you have cared for, intrusive thoughts, images or nightmares about stressful events, feeling on edge, and difficulty sleeping. Other signs include avoiding particular people, pets or places that may remind you of stressful events. Burnout is associated with chronic work stress. Signs include feeling depleted, feelings of inefficacy or feeling disconnected.
There are many ways that compassion fatigue might show itself. For example, you might find it difficult to switch off yet also feel like you just can’t get on top of things. The harder you try, the more you feel tired, the less effective you feel and the more down you become. It may be tempting to then think, “I’m just not trying hard enough” or “I should suck it up”, and the downward spiral begins.
How can compassion fatigue be managed?
If you recognise the signs. Know that you are not alone and that there is a lot you can do. Here are some tips to get you started on the path to recovery.
💪 Take action.
Take stock and reflect on what might be causing you stress then develop a plan to tackle these sources. Not all sources of stress can be easily removed but we can find ways of managing them so that they don’t overwhelm us.
🪴 Practice self-care.
Self-care schmelf care… I hear you say?! While self-care may sound a little indulgent, it is really important. Take time to engage in activities that energise and relax you. Think about it as a way to refill your tank when you’re running empty.
🙅🏽♀️ Set boundaries.
Set boundaries between yourself and other people and pets. This may mean saying no to some things and recognising that you can only do the best you can with the time and resources you have. Establishing boundaries can be hard but having no boundaries can be even harder and can lead to feelings of resentment.
🙌🏽 Remember you rock.
Celebrate the wins. You do amazing work. Savour the moments you made a positive difference. These moments make it all worth it.
💚 Talk it through.
Talking it through with a professional like myself who specialises in compassion fatigue can help. I’ve worked in the animal industry for over twenty years and together, we can take your personal circumstances into account and work on some tailored strategies. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or check out http://drvanessarohlf.com.au/ for more information.
It can be tempting to put others ahead of our own needs. We must however take care of ourselves to take care of others. We are equally deserving of this. Since you’re reading this piece, you are already doing something good for yourself. This is awesome. What will you do next?
This article was a guest contribution by Dr Vanessa Rohlf, BA(Hons), MCouns&PsychTh, PhD
Vanessa is a former veterinary nurse and animal welfare researcher who saw a need to support those who care for animals. As a registered counsellor, she focuses on providing compassionate, tailored, and evidence-based support to animal care professionals from a range of industries including animal rescue, shelters, and veterinary clinics.
Read more: Compassion Fatigue