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Assessing and Addressing Compassion Fatigue in Wildlife Rehabilitation

By Pauline Baker, Director of Wildlife Rehabilitation, Think Wild Bend Oregon

While in the kitchen preparing a disemboweled rat for a Red tailed hawk patient, the phone began to ring. A heavy knot formed in the stomach of the young woman preparing the diet as she knew this meant another injured or orphaned animal was in need of help. A sudden feeling of helplessness rushed over her, turning her complexion to that of a ghost. A volunteer looked over and asked if she was ok. She quickly replied, “I’m fine,” and went on with business as usual. This scenario is all too familiar to rehabbers. As the caretakers of all these wild animals, it is impossible to avoid. Compassion fatigue, according to Charles Figley, is “a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is a state of extreme tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.”

Compassion fatigue often goes unnoticed or ignored. It is important to recognize if you are feeling fatigued and take the proper steps to mitigate the impacts. The symptoms of compassion fatigue include:

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Not feeling joy in activities that used to be pleasurable

  • Isolation

  • Sadness and apathy

  • Chronic physical ailments

  • Voicing excessive complaints about your job, manager, and/or coworkers

  • Nightmares

  • Lack of self-care, including hygiene

  • Substance abuse

If these symptoms are noticed in yourself or a coworker, it is imperative to address and take action. Compassion fatigue left unnoticed and unchecked can lead to caregiver neglect, which ultimately leads to neglect of the patients. Some helpful tools that can be utilized while feeling fatigued are:

  • Take breaks during your workday — if you feel you are unable to take breaks, evaluate your situation; is there a volunteer or fellow staff member who can cover for you for even 10 minutes? If not, would letting a task wait 10 minutes be the end of the world? How can you affect your situation to allow yourself the space you need to fully function?

  • Be pragmatic — know your facilities’ capabilities and set reasonable boundaries

  • Confide in others — create a support system

    • Vent within boundaries — Relationships such as significant others, close friends, or relatives can be good people to vent your complaints to, but try not to vent to anyone to whom it would be burdensome, hurtful, or inappropriate (volunteers, good samaritans, sometimes coworkers depending on the situation). Be aware that venting can become a toxic obsession if allowed to run on. If you have trouble with this, it might be helpful to set a time limit so you don’t just work yourself up again.

  • Relaxation techniques:

    • Deep breathing — Focus all your attention on your breathing, choose a rhythm to breathe to for a few minutes. For example breathe in to the count of four and out to the count of five.

    • Progressive muscle relaxation — Try focusing on different parts of your body, saying to yourself “my toes relax, my feet relax, my ankles relax…” Do this all the way up the body until you reach your brain

    • Mindfulness — Be in the present moment, acknowledge your feelings without being overly reactive to the situation

    • Guided Meditation — You don’t need a private guru, just Google “Guided Meditation” and you will find dozens of online scripts, Youtube videos, and Apps all designed to help

There are several other ways to help relieve stress and better your state of mind outside of work so you have the capacity to function at work:

  • Self Care

    • Massage Therapy

    • Yoga, stretching, or other exercise

    • Taking baths or showers

    • Improving your diet

    • Developing healthy sleep habits

  • Hobbies — finding a creative outlet or spending time in nature can be especially helpful

  • Journaling — Focus on the positive aspects of your work / life / day, no detail is too small or insignificant

  • Therapy — individual therapy, support groups, and remote therapy over the phone or virtual conferencing are just some of the available options. There’s no shame in talking to an expert about your problems.

It is far easier to read about these tools than use them, but if compassion fatigue is truly addressed it will improve the overall morale of staff and volunteers, which leads to better patient care. It is important to know that everyone is susceptible to compassion fatigue. Any rehabber can close their eyes and remember a time almost exactly like the experience previously described. Protocols should be implemented that prevent and mitigate compassion fatigue in staff. Furthermore, one should be aware of the symptoms and ask for help the second these feelings arise. The hospital, and ultimately the wild patients that inhabit it, will surely thank you!

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