Rescue Work Can be Bad for Your Healthby Sheila Webster Boneham, Ph.D.
Author of Rescue Matters! How to Find, Foster, and Rehome Companion Animals (Alpine, 2009).
Rescue work can be bad for your health. I know, that seems an odd thing for me to say, since much of my writing career for the past 14 years has promoted companion animal rescue and responsible pet care in one way or another. But the longer I work with rescuers and write about responsible human-animal relationships, the more concerned I become about what rescue does to some people. Whether we call the results “burnout” or “compassion fatigue” or something else, the signs and results can be significant.
But first, how do you know if you, or someone you know, is burning out? Signs of burnout vary because we all process stress differently. In addition, we all bump into rescue situations that make us furious and sad. If we can feel those emotions and then move on to productive action, we can maintain personal equilibrium and, hopefully, continue to have a positive effect. But sometimes the emotions that we experience overwhelm us. Typically, a person who is burning out experiences one or more of the following feelings or behaviors:
- chronic physical exhaustion
- a sense of hopelessness
- chronic anger
- impatience with pet owners, other rescuers, or potential adopters
- lack of compassion for people
When those feelings overshadow more positive aspects of life , including the positive aspects of rescue work, it’s time to take a step back and reassess. Why? Several reasons. First, feeling overwhelmed makes a person less effective at his or her job (whether paid or volunteer). Not only does that feeling make it difficult to accomplish necessary tasks effectively, but it diminishes our ability to interact effectively with other people - and that clearly is an essential part of rescue. Eventually chronic stress will affect a person’s physical health as well, potentially leading to serious illness.
So what to do if you (or someone you know) seems to be burned out? And what can you do to prevent burnout from happening in the first place? Here are some suggestions:
- Be realistic. If you don’t have the time, space, or energy to foster animals, then find another way to help. Do what you can do, but don’t beat yourself up for what you can’t do.
- Trust your colleagues to do their jobs – don’t try to micro manage everyone else.
- When you have enough on your plate, learn to say no. Don’t feel you must explain or make excuses; just say, “Thank you for thinking of me, but at this time I have to say no.”
- Maintain some balance in your life, and have some fun. Rescued animals are important, but so are your own pets, your family, your friends, your job, and your health. Make rescue part of your life, not your whole life.
- Take part in or spectate at other sorts of animal-oriented activities, and get to know responsible breeders, fanciers, and trainers. Listen with an open mind to what they have to say about animal-related issues.
- Be as kind to people as you are to animals, be slow to judge, and avoid gossip. Focus on positive action. Educate the people who will learn, realize that some won’t, and move on.
- Ask for help when you need it.
- Take breaks from rescue when you need to, for a week, a month, a year. You can always come back to rescue work later if you want to, or you may find other ways to contribute to society.
Thanks Sheila for the guest blog spot, be sure to look for Sheila and the Rescue Matters! Fan page on Facebook as well as check out her website. When work in rescue, like so many other areas, we need to care for ourselves so that we can care for others. SJS