Let’s take care of the animals, and ourselves!

Don’t Forget to Take Care of Yourself

winter cat

As the temperature cools and daylight becomes scarce, winter brings a chance for us to slow down and catch our breath from the typical hecticness that is spring through fall in animal shelters. This is a good time of year to refocus on our own physical and emotional health, and that of our colleagues.  Remembering to take care of ourselves will allow us to continue our efforts in caring for many shelter animals over the lifetime of our careers.

Awareness

You’ve probably heard the terms “burnout” and “compassion fatigue” used before in association with animal welfare. But, did you know that they are two different concepts? Burnout is a condition that evolves from a stressful workplace environment, such as working long hours. Compassion Fatigue is the physical and emotional exhaustion that result from your relationship with the animals, essentially from caring too much.

Both Burnout and compassion fatigue are sadly common conditions experienced by those involved in animal welfare. We experience a full range of emotions on a daily basis as we celebrate the adoption of an animal or empathize with the loss of another. Although much of it will depend on the organization you are affiliated with and your own personality, you may be susceptible no matter what your role is within the organization.

Symptoms of trouble

Burnout and compassion fatigue can manifest through either mental or physical symptoms, and in many cases both. Commonly reported mental changes include: depression, sadness, irritability, apathy, hyper-vigilance, and anxiety. Those affected by compassion fatigue in particular have reported a variety of physical indications including: chronic headaches, fatigue, appetite changes, chronic illness, and trouble sleeping. In severe cases, these symptoms may progress to negative coping strategies or self-harm behaviors.

person with headache 

A body, mind and soul approach

Awareness of these conditions and our own susceptibility is the first step in prevention. However, a proactive approach focusing on both our physical and mental health is essential in protecting our career choice.

As it is true for the animals within our shelters, physical exercise directly improves our own mental health. Exercise is a known method for stress relief. Because stress can impair our immune function, exercise can help us fight off pathogens typically encountered this time of year. If a gym membership does not fit into your lifestyle that’s okay! Try taking a dog for a walk for 20-30 minutes each day instead. The exercise and fresh air will be great for both you and your canine companion!

dog in snow

In addition to getting regular exercise, eating a well-balanced diet is essential for physical and mental health.  Fruits and vegetables are particularly important components of a lean diet that supports healthy immune function. Although making healthy food choices can be difficult this time of year, try adding one additional serving of a fruit or vegetable to your diet each day. Gradually add more servings over time until your eating the recommended 4-6 servings per day. You may even discover that you like most of them!

Furthermore, remember that a healthy state of mind is just as important as a healthy body and immune system. Please do not forget to focus on the positive that you do. Animal welfare is a large and complex issue.  However, every positive outcome that you experience is a positive outcome no matter how small it may seem! Be proud of your work and know that you are making a difference in the lives of the animals that you care so very much about.

Ask for help

For some of us, no matter how proactive we are, there will be times when we need additional help in combating Burnout or Compassion Fatigue. Consulting your supervisor to discuss your concerns and brainstorm ideas to work towards a solution may be all that is needed. However, it is often helpful to have a co-worker, family member or friend to confide in as well. These people may give a unique insight to a tough situation.  No matter whom it is that you chose to talk with, remember Burnout and Compassion Fatigue will take planning and determination to overcome.  However, I am sure we can all agree that our career in the Animal Welfare field is well worth the effort!

Additional resources

Taking Inventory (Animal Sheltering 2013)

People Care Starts with you (Animal Sheltering 2009)