IAHAIO recommendation on compassion fatigue in the animal-assisted interventions (AAI) field
IAHAIO recognizes the risk of compassion fatigue in the field of human-animal interactions and animal assisted interventions. Compassion fatigue affects people’s physical and emotional health and social functioning – and as such can become a social problem, challenging public health across borders.
IAHAIO underlines that:
- encountering suffering and death of nonhuman animals on a regular basis, either due to professional or voluntary obligations, may lead to compassion fatigue
- Individuals who treat and/or tend to animals may be doubly impacted due to additional exposure to suffering and distress of human caretakers of aforementioned nonhuman animals.
- compassion fatigue can develop in a human-animal interaction situation
What is compassion fatigue?
Compassion fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress disorder (STSD), is the psychological consequence of exposure to the effects of traumatic experiences, violence, neglect, terminal illness and death, as well as fear or despair as emotions accompanying these states (Figley 1995). While people suffering from compassion fatigue do not experience the traumatizing events themselves, they may feel the effects of the emotional burden of those directly impacted (ProQOL 2020).
Compassion fatigue is characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion. Its main symptoms include difficulties with concentration and sleep, irritability, feeling of helplessness, numbness or withdrawal, lowered life satisfaction. This could then negatively impact social activities, relationships, work satisfaction and performance quality. Untreated, compassion fatigue may lead to professional burnout, depression, and in the most serious cases – suicidal attempts.
Who may suffer from compassion fatigue?
Started in 1990s, the research on compassion fatigue is ongoing. To this day the phenomenon has been recognized among members of many groups working with trauma and suffering (see e.g. Schwam 1998; Regehr et al. 2002; Beaton et al. 2004; Ben et al. 2006; Figley & Roop 2006; Benedek et al. 2007; Devilly et al. 2009; MacRitchie et al. 2010; Cieślak et al. 2013; Manning-Jones et al. 2016; Ouedraogo et al. 2021). These groups include, but are not limited to:
- Individuals providing services in the health care and palliative care sector;
- Social workers, including child protection workers;
- Mental health professionals e.g. psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists working with victims of violence;
- Emergency service providers e.g. firefighters, paramedics, police officers;
- Veterinarians and their supporting staff including veterinary nurses and technicians;
- Staff and volunteers of animal shelters and animal protection NGOs;
- Families and other informal caregivers of people who have a chronic illness or have experienced trauma may also experience compassion fatigue.
IAHAIO recognizes that compassion fatigue may also impact those working in the field of animal-assisted interventions. Long-term exposure to human suffering and trauma may be particularly noteworthy in (but not limited to):
- animal-assisted therapy and counselling with abuse victims;
- animal-assisted activities in a palliative care environment – including both visiting and residential programs;
- animal-assisted activities in curative oncology hospital wards;
- animal-assisted crisis response that focuses on providing comfort and support for trauma, crisis and disaster survivors.
In consistency with its One Health, One Welfare approach, IAHAIO encourages further research in the area.
How should compassion fatigue be addressed?
Researchers and practitioners list a number of actions helpful in dealing with compassion fatigue (see e.g. Figley 1995; Ludick & Figley 2017; Schabram & Maitlis 2017). IAHAIO supports the following principles, both as precautionary measures and as forms of addressing the problem:
- Observing, and improving where necessary and possible, the relationship between work and private life – including analyses of working hours and time-related pressures;
- Defining professional commitments and achievable goals, such as acquiring particular professional skills, instead of focusing on goals of infinite nature, such as “helping others”;
- Focusing on personal commitments to relatives and friends;
- Focusing on personal development outside of the problematic context e.g. through developing hobbies, participating in regular physical activity, practicing mindfulness;
- Obtaining training in human and pet bereavement, as well as emotional resilience;
- Providing or obtaining personal psychological support outside of the workplace environment i.e. therapy, social or bereavement support or therapy;
- Organizing support groups of fellows in the AAI field, including phone and online helplines.
- Beaton R.D., Murphy S., Johnson L.C., Nemuth M.: Secondary traumatic stress response in fire fighters in the aftermath of 9/11/2001. Traumatology, 2004, 10(1), 7-16. doi:10.1177/153476560401000102.
- Benedek D.M., Fullerton C., Ursano R.J.: First responders: mental health consequences of natural and human-made disasters for public health and public safety workers. Annual Review of Public Health, 2007, 28, 55-68.
- Cieślak R., Anderson V., Bock J., et al.: Secondary Traumatic Stress Among Mental Health Providers Working With the Military. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 2013, 201(11), 917–925, doi: 10.1097/nmd.0000000000000034.
- Figley C.R.: Compassion Fatigue: Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder in Those Who Treat the Traumatized. Brunner/Mazel, New York 1995.
- Figley C. R., Roop R. G.: Compassion Fatigue in the Animal-Care Community. Humane Society Press, Washington 2006.
- Ludick M., Figley C. R.: Toward a Mechanism for Secondary Trauma Induction and Reduction: Reimagining a Theory of Secondary Traumatic Stress. Traumatology, 2017, 23; 112-123, doi: 10.1037/trm0000096.
- MacRitchie, V., Leibowitz, S.: Secondary Traumatic Stress, Level of Exposure, Empathy and Social Support in Trauma Workers. South African Journal of Psychology, 2010, 40(2), 149–158. doi:10.1177/008124631004000204.
- Ouedraogo, F. B., Sandra L. Lefebvre S., Charlotte R. Hansen C. R., Brorsen B.W.: Compassion satisfaction, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress among full-time veterinarians in the United States (2016–2018). Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 2021 258(11), 1259-1270.
- Platt B., Hawton K., Simkin S., Mellanby R.J.: Suicidal behaviour and psychosocial problems in veterinary surgeons: a systematic review. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatroc Epidemiology, 2012, 47(2), 223-240. doi:10.1007/s00127-010-0328-6
- ProQOL – Professional Quality of Life: Professional Quality of Life Measure. https://proqol.org (retrieved 2021-08-10).
- Regehr C., Goldberg G., Hughes J.: Exposure to human tragedy, empathy, and trauma in ambulance paramedics. The American Journal of Ortopsychiatry, 2002, 72(4), 505-513.
- Schabram, K., Maitlis, S: Negotiating the challenges of a calling: Emotion and enacted sensemaking in animal shelter work. Academy of Management Journal, 2017, 60(2), 584-609.
- Schwam, K.: The phenomenon of compassion fatigue in perioperative nursing, AORN Journal, 1998, 68 (4), 642-648.
Prepared by: Michał Piotr Pręgowski, IAHAIO VP Policy and Adele Lau, IAHAIO Board member
Approved by: IAHAIO Board, September 2021