What Management Needs to Know about Compassion Fatigue – Part 1

Compassion fatigue (secondary trauma and burnout) occurs at high rates in the caring professions. Exposure to death, cases of neglect and abuse, grieving and traumatised owners, long hours and large case-loads can make animal care professionals especially vulnerable.

Compassion fatigue is defined as a form of stress experienced by those who care for suffering people and/or animals. The condition is often understood as an individual problem. Indeed, compassion fatigue is a personal experience and there are a number of individual risk factors that make one person more likely to experience the condition than others. The irony of compassion fatigue is that it’s the staff members who are the most dedicated, the most compassionate and the hardest working that are at risk.

This may leave management feeling at a loss when it comes to knowing how to help their staff prevent and manage this form of caregiver stress. There are however, a number of steps that management can take to help staff cope with this condition and promote a happier and more resilient workplace.

Step 1. Acknowledge and make a commitment to address compassion fatigue in the workplace

Acknowledge that compassion fatigue is an occupational hazard just like cat scratches, dog bites and zoonoses. Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. It can be such a relief for staff to know that there is a name out there for what animal care professionals are experiencing. It’s even more of a relief for staff to know that they aren’t the only ones experiencing difficulties.

Next, make a formal commitment to staff that you will take steps to manage this hazard in the workplace. Open the channels of communication and ask staff for ideas and suggestions on what conditions or policies they think need to be changed or implemented. A caution here is that, it may not be possible to implement all staff suggestions. For example, a suggestion may be to hire more staff which may not be possible with current resources. If this is the case, then management can acknowledge the suggestion and explain reasons why this is not feasible. An alternative may then be offered. Making greater use of volunteers or staff rotation may be some alternatives to hiring more staff for example.

Step 2. Taking stock: Measure levels of compassion fatigue in the workplace

A necessary part of this first step involves taking stock. What are the current levels of compassion fatigue in the workplace?

If your workplace is experiencing the following, compassion fatigue may be at high levels.

  • High staff turnover
  • High levels of absenteeism
  • High levels of staff disagreements
  • Low morale o Low productivity
  • High rate of workers’ compensation claims

You may wish to openly discuss with staff their experiences of compassion fatigue in an informal manner. Staff meetings, workshops or one to one discussions may present opportunities to open the discussion.

Ask staff to monitor their own levels of compassion fatigue. The Professional Quality of Life scale (PROQOL) is free, easy to use and measures two aspects of compassion fatigue: secondary trauma and burnout.

The scale can be accessed here: http://www.proqol.org/ProQol_Test.html

A copy of the scale that has been adapted for those who care for animals can be found here: http://www.ndaa.org/aa_stress/PROFESSIONAL%20QUALITY%20OF%20LIFE%20SCALE%20-%20for%20animal%20care.pdf

Offering these tools may be a great way to encourage self-awareness and reflection in staff. Two qualities linked to reduced levels of compassion fatigue. An added benefit of this tool is that it also measures a positive aspect of work called compassion satisfaction. The satisfaction people get from helping and caring for other people and/or animals.

As a compassion fatigue consultant, I’ve had a pleasure of working with a number of organisations to implement steps 1 and 2, which has led to enormous benefits. In Part 2 of this article, I’II discuss some additional steps management can take to help staff prevent and cope with compassion fatigue.


Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project (2013). Recognising compassion fatigue. Retrieved from http://www.compassionfatigue.org/pages/symptoms.html

Figley, C. R. & Roop, R. G. (2006). Compassion fatigue in the animal-care community. Washington, DC: The Humane Society of the United States. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/2258999/Compassion_fatigue_in_the_animal-care_community

Shelter Employee Engagement and Development Survey (SEEDS). (nd.). What if … Stress and burnout scores are high?
Retrieved from https://seeds.uncc.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/22/2016/05/Stress-Burnout-Best-Practices-SeeDS.pdf

Skovholt, T. M. (2001). The resilient practitioner: Burnout prevention and self-care strategies for counselors, therapists, teachers, and health professionals. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.


Professional Quality of Life Scale (PROQOL). (2009). [Adapted for animal care professionals].
Retrieved from http://www.ndaa.org/aa_stress/PROFESSIONAL%20QUALITY%20OF%20LIFE%20SCALE%20-%20for%20animal%20care.pdf