People are finally talking about it.
As director of one of the country’s oldest, busiest animal shelters, Alyssa Krieger has seen staff and volunteers come and go— many of them just months after they started at MSPCA-Angell in Massachusetts.
And she has a good idea why.
Compassion can be a heavy burden. And even the biggest, strongest hearts can have trouble lugging all that weight around.
Among people who work with animals, it’s called compassion fatigue, a sustained, even chronic stress on both the mind and body of a caregiver. And it has long afflicted people who can’t say no to animals in need — whether in shelters, rescue groups, veterinary clinics or even among independent caregivers.
“The thing about compassion fatigue is you don’t always know in the moment that you have compassion fatigue,” Krieger tells The Dodo. “It takes a very self-aware person for that to be so obvious.”
Instead, the weight of all those feelings — seeing animals abandoned, put down, abused, lonely — builds up over time.
“One of the hallmark signs of [compassion fatigue] is that you cannot undo what you’ve been exposed to, and your worldview is forever changed,” Elizabeth Strand, founding director of the University of Tennessee’s veterinary social work program, tells National Public Radio.
Think of it as a kind of awakening that makes it impossible to close your eyes again.
Unless, of course, like Krieger, you carve out some essential boundaries.
“Having a work-life balance is important,” says Krieger, who has been at the shelter for nearly seven years. “The first year, I would work through my lunch break and stay two hours late and I loved it, but it was tiring. Now I am better at going home and having lunch.
“If you ask anyone who works with me, I’m constantly yelling at them to go to lunch or go home.”
‘We’re saying goodbye to animals we love a lot’
Ask Tammy Thies about compassion fatigue and you will likely get a resounding, “Ohhh yeah.”
“It’s definitely a real disease,” Thies, who is founder of the The Wildcat Sanctuary in Minnesota, tells The Dodo. “Because people, like our staff, are rescuing animals from bad conditions, but not only that, because we house so many animals and we have such a high geriatric population, we’re saying goodbye to animals we love a lot.
“It can just be overwhelming. Even though you’re doing a good thing, there’s so much sadness around what you do.”
The sanctuary takes compassion fatigue among staff so seriously that it hosts an annual seminar focused on combating its effects.
Another way to keep it in check involves embracing the circle of life.
“We do an ash release ceremony when our cats pass away and are cremated,” Thies says. “We do a celebration of their life. Similar to what you would do with humans when you follow the grief process.”
Few people in any profession, however, work so closely with death as veterinarians and technicians. Indeed, death — frequently the only treatment for an old or sick animal — is something of a colleague in the veterinary world.
But death doesn’t take a holiday. It’s well-documented that suicide rates among veterinary staff are among the highest, with a study from the American Veterinary Medicine Association (AVMA) suggesting one in six vets has considered suicide.
That’s a sobering — and tragic — statistic for a vocation that also happens to save more lives than most.
“Because we are in a profession that requires empathy for us to do our job well, we may have a tendency to internalize the emotions and the drama and we just keep working, because it’s what we have to do,” Sonja Olson, an emergency clinician at BluePearl Veterinary Partners, tells The Dodo.
But the darkness that has dogged the veterinary community for so long seems to be abating, thanks in great part to the simple fact that more people are talking about it.
“What I would celebrate is that there’s more awareness than ever about this issue,” Olson says.
The idea that you can just “power through” the daily wear and tear on your heart seems to be fading, Olson notes, as more people are reaching out to their managers, health care providers or colleagues.
“Lean on your friends and family as resources,” Olson says. “You are not alone. Really give yourself permission to have a life. And stay healthy by finding ways to keep yourself well with good nutrition, hydration and exercise.”
And the idea that we’re all in this together is breathing hope into all quarters of the animal care community — from The Wildcat Sanctuary’s annual get-togethers to MSPCA-Angell, where the organization frequently has a guest speaker visit to discuss the emotional rigors of do-goodery.
You might say compassion fatigue is taking a turn for compassion rejuvenation — a concerted effort to uplift the spirits of those who uplift animals every day.
“In rescue, it’s 24/7,” Thies says. “So when you get physically exhausted because you’ve been working six long days — and then you have the emotional loss on top of it, it can be overwhelming. So we have to take care of each other and remind each other that someone needs time off or time to go and take care of themselves.”
Or, as Krieger from the MSPCA says, “just go home.”