Pet Remedy is used widely within the animal rescue sector. We have worked hard to develop strong working relationships with our colleagues involved in all areas of rescue and greatly value those connections. This month we welcome the inspiring Rosie Taylor-Trigg, who has written a powerful piece about the challenges facing those working in animal rescue and tells about a new organisation that has been formed to support them.
Animal rescue is a competitive field of work, with hundreds of applications flooding in for the highly sought-after jobs. To progress within animal rescue can take years, and over those years the staff member will be faced with as many, if not more, negative experiences as positive.
Television shows such as Paul Grady’s ‘For the love of dogs’ successfully highlight some of the highs and lows of working in a shelter, but there has not yet been a platform that explains to the outside world how tough the job truly is.
Perhaps this is for a good reason. Perhaps publicly revealing the most harrowing parts of the job would be overwhelming for non-shelter workers and could consequently leave shelter workers at risk of unfair and unjust criticism.
Starting a new role in a rescue centre can be challenging, with the vision often differing from the reality. I still always find it tough to see new staff endure their first difficult rescue experience. Over time some staff build resilience and find that their love for the job outweighs the hardships, and other staff find that the strain of negative experiences significantly affects their mental health leading to a career change. This latter option is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength to understand your own mental and emotional capabilities, your limits.
For me, I still consider my job as a Shelter Behaviourist a true privilege and cannot imagine doing anything else. It is a role where no two days are quite the same and like other caring professions you develop a real camaraderie with colleagues.
It can take some by surprise to know that it is not just the major events that can cause trauma to shelter workers, but also the little moments that do damage. Trigger stacking absolutely applies to those working in the shelter as much as to the animals housed there. Over time, this daily stress and emotional anguish can turn into Compassion Fatigue. It is important to note that Compassion fatigue is just one of the many mental health issues that can affect shelter workers, but it is the issue that I will predominantly focus on within this article.
Francoise Mathieu, founder of Compassion Fatigue Solutions, explains that Compassion Fatigue is an occupational hazard that everyone who works in a caring profession will encounter at some point in their career.
I would agree with the accuracy of this statement and colleagues that have worked in rescue for many years have often described the journey to me as a rollercoaster with no seatbelt or track end. A ride with some smooth even keel moments, balanced by a climb on rough terrain with emotions building, and concluded by a sudden drop when tough times happen – with the process in its entirety being more exhausting than exhilarating.
These highs and lows are described in an article by Colleen Mehelich as a ‘double edged sword’ and she explains that whilst you are in a job you love, there are undeniable difficulties with this job as it can become a way of life that prevents or limits you (whether by lack of time or by self-restraint) from developing a life outside of work.
Other studies have been carried out by Dr Roop and Dr Figley on the examination of Compassion Fatigue in the animal care industry. These studies have concluded that Compassion Fatigue is not age dependent, gender dependent or dependent on years of service and perhaps most surprising to non-rescue workers – compassion fatigue is only marginally related to euthanasia.
There are multiple potential stressors in animal rescue work including dealing with unwell animals, neglected animals, difficult or emotional guardians/customers, witnessing highly stressed animals, daily time restrictions, potentially dangerous situations, etc.
It is difficult to find statistics on the effect of compassion fatigue on shelters workers, I would suggest that this is mainly because there is minimal awareness regarding the symptoms internally in the workplace, which inevitably could lead to lack of self-diagnosis or support from employers.
Dr Roop outlines indicators of Compassion Fatigue as the following (though it is important to recognize that this list is not extensive or hierarchal).
- Physical and Mental exhaustion
- Acute sadness
- Withdrawing from social activities and from relatives/friends.
- Feeling out of balance
- Sudden anger
I would add that emotional numbness can be an indicator of Compassion Fatigue, where you know that an event should trigger an emotional response and yet you are unable to feel emotion at the time or after.
Many animal rescue workers are unaware that they are experiencing Compassion Fatigue and start to class themselves as ‘heartless’, believing there is ‘something wrong’ with them, and put their feelings down to exhaustion alone. Others know that they are struggling but worry that speaking up will cause their workplace to judge them as not able to progress within the career field or even to ‘cope’ with the difficulties of their current job which they fear could result in demotion or less responsibility given to them.
In my opinion it is the responsibility of each animal rescues own management team/trustees to ensure that staff are cared for and that every effort is made to support staff experiencing signs of Compassion Fatigue and in Compassion Fatigue prevention.
If workplaces had more of an understanding of the signs of Compassion Fatigue, intervention could occur earlier, and a person’s mental health supported more effectively. This statement is not to criticize the workplaces as there is still current lack of awareness and insufficient management training on Compassion Fatigue with many senior staff members themselves not necessarily being able to recognize their own signs of Compassion Fatigue – as is so often the case, starting to tackle this issue, in my opinion comes down to education and resources being more widely available.
So how can workplaces support their staff?
I would advise setting time aside for open conversations, where staff feel free to express their worries, stresses and views free of judgement. Setting aside time each week or fortnight where staff can speak to a mental health first aider at work if they would like to do so. Investing funds in sending at least 2 staff members on a mental health first aid course – and this being as much of a priority as physical first aid training. Displaying local mental health resources on a noticeboard in the workplace.
Educating staff about resources organizations such as INTORescue is also incredibly important. INTORescue is an organization designed to support animal rescue staff and volunteers with peer support educational resources, discussions, discounts and a thriving social media community. INTORescue is run by rescue workers for rescue workers and so has a personal touch with the committee having a personal understanding of all things rescue. INTORescue is a one-off membership fee of just £25 to enable rescue workers to comfortably join the organization and not have the stress of renewing their membership annually.
I believe passionately that mental health awareness and support for staff should not be a luxury in a shelter but standard practice, the norm.
Shelter managers and trustees in my opinion should be meeting to discuss the impact of the role on their staff and on themselves and forming an action plan on how to minimize trauma related conditions developing and an action plan on how to support staff, seeking external support from organizations such as INTORescue if required.
My vision is that by 2025 we have an increase in rescue shelters with trained mental health first aiders alongside mental health care plans for animal rescue shelter staff.
Rosie is the Canine Behaviourist at the Cheltenham Animal Shelter and is the Chair of INTORescue.