Caring for our People. Caring for our Animals.
Working with research animals can be challenging, leading to workplace stress, burnout, and compassion fatigue. But together we can support resiliency. We have a range of resources designed to promote resiliency for both individuals & institutions.
Professionals working with research animals want to help both people and animals. They care deeply for both the research animals and advancing science, but their work can come with many challenges. For example, most of their bonds with animals are broken at the end of the study. And during studies they may view animals in unavoidable distress. Furthermore, they may experience moral & emotional stress when internally held values or emotions conflict with those that are expressed. They also may not feel supported by society or even friends and family in our work since animal research can have social stigma and be undervalued.
All of this can lead to workplace stress which has known negative effects in the human medical field. For example, we know workplace stress can increase depression & exhaustion, decrease patient satisfaction and quality of care, and increase staff turnover & absenteeism. One specific type of workplace stress is called compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue is a condition of caregivers that is characterized by physical and emotional exhaustion as well as sometimes a change in the ability to feel empathy. it stems from repeated exposure to emotionally challenging, stressful situations that call for empathy towards other beings whether human or animal. Compassion fatigue can include elements of perpetration-induced traumatic stress (distress related to causing trauma to others), secondary traumatic stress (distress related to viewing the trauma of others), and burnout.
Symptoms of compassion fatigue can include exhaustion, depression, anger, frustration, anxiety, and cynicism. It can also cause chronic physical ailments leading to isolation, absenteeism, hopelessness, difficulty performing tasks, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, invasive thoughts, substance abuse, and more.
There are a variety of ways that institutions & individuals can work to manage workplace stress and support workplace well-being. Note that research evidence is not always available to demonstrate the effectiveness of each strategy, but they may be worth trying.
Encourage social support via respecting boundaries between home & work life (and encouraging staff to take breaks from work), peer counseling/discussions, & staff engagement activities.
Communicate the value the human-animal bond, animal contributions, & research such as creating animal memorials/tributes, scheduling time for human-animal interactions, allowing animals to be named, and communicating the value of research to all staff. Promoting animal adopting & rehoming programs where possible.
Promote self-care, resiliency, & wellness such as seminars on sleep, nutrition, exercise, deep breathing, meditation, mindfulness, relaxation, volunteering, etc. Institutions could also provide in-house fitness facilities, yoga, or meditation classes or reimbursement enrollment in these activities. Staff should be trained on compassion fatigue & resilience.
Provide choice for animal euthanasia by allowing staff to either opt-in or opt-out of this procedure.
Support for animal behavior, welfare, & the 3Rs via a comprehensive animal welfare assessment/management programs, internal 3Rs or animal welfare awards, advocating for refinement/replacement/reduction, regular continuing education.
Advocate for an open atmosphere of dialogue about animal research both within and outside of work. Provide opportunities for staff to report questions or concerns internally. Provide training & encourage public outreach regarding biomedical research. Participate in Biomedical Research Awareness Day.
Create institutional compassion fatigue resiliency programs. Several institutions have well-established programs such as the University of Washington’s Dare 2 Care Program and the University of Michigan’s Compassion Awareness Project. The North American 3Rs Collaborative is currently helping 6 additional institutions establish their own programs and evaluate the efficacy of these programs via a formal longitudinal study.