Transforming compassion fatigue for people who care for animals

Puppy in a cage. Puppy chewing on a metal grate.Does this sound familiar? Your emotions are all over the place, swinging between numbness and tears, resentment and compassion, depression and overwork? Are you irritable, and finding it hard to locate your empathy? Are you wondering if you’re really cut out to work in a caring profession, but starting to believe that if you don’t hang in there, no one else will do the work you’re struggling with?

The fact that so many of you will say “yes” to some or all of those questions is why the Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida is once again offering its Compassion Fatigue Strategies online course with certified compassion fatigue educator Jessica Dolce. This is the only time this course will be offered this year. Registration is open now, with the course beginning Sept. 30.

Dolce takes a very different approach to compassion fatigue than many people expect. “This is not about getting a pedicure and drinking a smoothie or taking a bubble bath,” she said bluntly. “Those things don’t fix compassion fatigue.”

And fixing compassion fatigue is critical to the future of both animal welfare and veterinary medicine. The condition has been increasingly identified as a threat to the well-being, health, and even lives of people who work with animals. Veterinarians and animal shelter workers alike struggle with increased risk of emotional numbness, strained interpersonal relationships, anxiety, sleep disorders, and health problems.

Will this course really make a difference? “Students have told me they feel restored after the class, and found new energy to re-engage with their work again,” Dolce said. “In the class, people start addressing their own inner reluctance to seek and receive help. They find out what really works for them as an individual when it comes to managing their response to stress, and develop resiliency and flexible boundaries. All these things let, them work with others in a more productive way, and not repeat the cycle of burnout by taking all the responsibility for everything on their own shoulders.”

The course has also allowed those in leadership roles to take what they learn back to their workplaces and improve communications and well-being for everyone on their team. “What these leaders learn has allowed them to have really honest discussions with their staffs and volunteers about how they want to restructure responsibilities, allowing people to move into different roles. This process helps them find a way to become confident of other people’s abilities, and to see others in a positive new light.”

Changing how the team members interact, and building a culture of compassion for each other and themselves, means leaders may finally allow volunteers in an organization to take on more responsibility, or letting go of the reins enough to let others step up. “The class helped them stop micromanaging, and let them see their staff is much more competent than they realized,” Dolce said.

People write to Dolce months to years after taking the course, saying that the mindfulness and self-awareness they learned have continued to help them deal with their own intense emotions. “They’re able to manage their own internal experience better,” she said “I hear repeatedly that people have built more authentic self-care. They figured out what actually works for them, so they don’t waste their time doing ‘cookie cutter’ self-care.”

Dolce points out, “Everyone who works with animals feels this, even if they’re coming from different fields. The needs are great, the resources small… When we’re stressed, fatigued, lacking empathy, and burned out, it compromises our ability to do good work. The healthier we are, the more able we are to do to ethical, good work for the long haul. I am selfishly teaching this because I want all these talented, compassionate people to be around to do this work!”

The course runs for eight weeks from Sept. 30-Nov. 24, 2019; registration will end Oct. 4. It is open to anyone who works with animals, and is eligible for 15 CE credits. The fee is $200. Interested students can learn more and register at Online Compassion Fatigue Strategies.