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Compassion fatigue: caring for the caregivers

By Mary Janak

Whose heart at DFL is not touched deeply by our animals–loving to care for them, whatever their needs, day and night, every day of the year? Our hearts fill with joy when an animal heals or learns new behaviors and each one finds a forever home; or with sadness, even grief, when an animal leaves this life.

DFL people have great compassion. “Compassion always” is our DFL motto. “Compassion is the concern for others’ suffering and a desire to alleviate it,” says Laura Henderson, DFL’s people care coach for staff and volunteers.

When compassionate people care so much for so long, they may be at risk for compassion fatigue.

“Compassion fatigue is a profound emotional and physical exhaustion that can occur in helping professions,” Laura explained. “It’s intense stress and preoccupation with the suffering of the animals or humans being helped. Compassion fatigue can creep in when people aren’t paying attention to how they feel physically and mentally.”

Laura has personal experience with it. Earlier in her life, she worked at a domestic violence safe house. “After a year, I had compassion fatigue and secondary trauma; I ended up leaving the profession. I wasn’t aware of my limitations and didn’t have essential support or guidance at work. I also wasn’t practicing good self-care. This is partly why I’m passionate about prevention and being proactive so people can thrive in helping professions.”

Things that can lead to compassion fatigue at DFL include overidentifying with our animals and/or their owners; repeated exposure to abuse, neglect and trauma; lack of professional boundaries; and consistently putting the needs of others, animal or human, before one’s own.

Ironically, one sign of compassion fatigue is a gradual lessening of compassion. Other signs include exhaustion, repeated physical illness, anger, irritability, decision fatigue, anxiety, depression or relationship issues.

Laura cautions, “these symptoms don’t necessarily mean compassion fatigue. We need to look at the complete picture to understand what’s going on. However, if someone thinks they may have compassion fatigue, they most likely do.”

To reduce risk, Laura suggests consistent self-care, being aware of emotional cause and effect, eating healthy foods, exercise and having support at and outside of work. “Focus on what is in your control.”

To help others, Laura suggests you “use positive, supportive language. Ask if the person feels okay and if they need to talk. Remind co-workers to take breaks and practice self-care. Suggest they come talk to me.”

“Everyone has a story to tell; I find joy in listening and supporting people to find more balance, more joy and more fulfillment in their lives,” Laura says. “Mental health matters and everyone has the capacity to heal.”

Individual Coaching
Laura can help with any work or home issues. Coaching sessions–30 to 45 minutes on Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends by request–are held at Leslie A. Malone Center, Buddy Center, the Harmony Equine Center or Solutions–Veterinary Hospital. If needed, touch base with your supervisor/manager to find the best time. To schedule an appointment, email Laura at lhenderson@ddfl.org.

Compassion Fatigue Workshops
Laura also conducts compassion fatigue workshops. Participants say it helps to think about how they’re feeling and how to improve their quality of life, to hear that others also have struggles and to identify their stress triggers and responses and what is in or out of their control.

Participants walk away with helpful tools and questions to ask themselves when they’re feeling stressed or fatigued. Many feel lighter with hope, are focused on being more attentive to their self-care and understand better how to help themselves and others.

To attend a workshop, check the DFL Intranet event calendar and watch for HR emails announcing workshop times.
Laura applied for the League’s people care coach position one week after she lost her rescue dog, Frank, a German Shepherd/Chow mix, age 13-ish, whom she adopted when he was around 5-years old. A friend told her about the position. “It felt serendipitous! I’m passionate about mental health and wellness and am thrilled to include DFL in my practice.”

Will there be a new fur-kid anytime soon? “Frank was the joy of my life, and I’m just not quite ready yet,” Laura says. In the meantime, “I do like to visit the DFL animals and stare longingly on the website!”

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