Animal welfare workers: Caring for ourselves during the COVID-19 crisis

Certified Compassion Fatigue Educator and instructor of the UF Shelter Medicine course Compassion Fatigue Strategies Jessica Dolce, MS CCFE, offers her perspective on how people who work with animals can find ways to make healthy choices during the current COVID-19 crisis.

A silhouette of a happy smiling girl lovingly petting her German Shepherd dog isolated against a sunset in the sky.COVID-19 has dramatically changed our world in the past month, reshaping the way we work and live. Many of us initially believed that life would return to normal in a few weeks and we sprinted to get things in order at work and at home.

Now it’s clear that this is going to be a much longer crisis than we initially anticipated. Turns out we’re in a marathon, not a sprint. Many of will need to adjust our pace, so we can stay well for the long haul.

We can start to do this by identifying our choices. When we feel “out of choice” it increases our stress.

While we may not have a choice about when quarantines will end or when animal shelters and clinics can reopen, some choices do remain.

As Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

How do we choose our own way in this challenging time? Let’s take a look:

Choice 1: Choose to focus on what’s within your control.

Today, what is within your zone of control?

These are choices you can make that aren’t dependent on anyone else changing how they behave or on the quarantine rules changing.

Your zone of control may be much smaller than it was a month ago. So it’s important to identify what you do and do not have control over today.

Remember that when something is out of your control, you can still choose how you respond or cope with it. To stay well as an animal welfare pro, identify the healthiest choice you can make in those circumstances.

Choice 2: Choose good enough over perfection.

When we’re stressed, our thinking tends to become rigid. Everything is black and white. All or nothing. If we can’t do our “normal” exercise routine, we do nothing. If we can’t eat “perfectly”, we eat all the cookies.

This is a common way of thinking about self-care. “I’ll take care of myself when things slow down after kitten season.” We wait for the perfect external conditions before we take care of ourselves. Of course the conditions are never perfect, so we never take care of ourselves!

The conditions are massively imperfect right now.  Please don’t wait until things get back to “normal” to care for yourself. Try choosing one area of your life and look for small, easy to accomplish “good enough” choices.

It may help to plot this out on a continuum with 1 being “nothing” and 10 being “prefect or normal.” In that one area of your life, where are you right now on the scale? What would one step closer to 10 look like? With each choice you make, you can ask yourself: Will this move me toward wellbeing or away from it? Will my choice reduce harm to myself and others or increase it?

The choices towards wellbeing and reduced harm may be very small right now. This crisis is depleting. Many of us have a limited capacity to do more than what we’re currently doing. If that’s the case, try to find one tiny, “better than nothing,” caring thing you can do for yourself each day.

Choice 3: Choose connection over isolation.

When we’re stressed or experiencing compassion fatigue we tend to isolate ourselves. Now we’re all isolated to some degree because of COVID-19. This is a problem. Our social connections are a significant source of our health and wellbeing. We need support now more than ever, both personally and professionally.

This isn’t just a marathon — it’s a marathon relay. We all have our section of the race to run. We can’t do this alone.

In animal welfare, there will likely be times when we need to rest, so we’ll pass the baton off to someone else. Then we can return to take up the baton once more. We’ll need to both give and receive support. What this looks like for each of us will be different. The level of support we can give to others will vary, and will also look different on any given day, depending on our capacity.

What kind of support do you need this week? Ask for it.

Asking for and accepting help is not something “helpers” are typically good at doing. We’re the “helpers,” after all! But things are different now. Every single person will be both the giver and the receiver of help. No one is above needing support in an unprecedented global pandemic.

What kind of support can you offer others? Are there any small ways you can be of support to your people? Reach out and stay connected.

We all have different needs, resources, and capacity, but we still have choices. By choosing to focus on what’s within your zone of control, doing “good enough” self-care, and accepting support from others, you’ll be pacing yourself for this long-distance challenge.

For more support, join Jessica in her upcoming webinar series Practicing Compassionate Badassery: Coping with COVID-19 starting April 13! Group discounts are available.