Many laboratory animal professionals enter the field because we love and care for animals. We form bonds with the animals in the laboratory and enjoy caring for them. Unfortunately, ultimately most of these bonds are broken at the end of the study. And we may experience moral & emotional stress from laboratory animal research. We also may not feel supported by society or even friends and family in our work since laboratory animal research has social stigma.
All of this can lead to workplace stress which has known negative effects in the human medical field such as increased depression & exhaustion, decreased patient satisfaction and quality of care, and increase staff turnover & absenteeism. One type of workplace stress is called compassion fatigue which is comprised of burnout and secondary traumatic stress.
More and more research is being seen in our field related to this issue. Two excellent cross-sectional papers are (1) Laboratory Animal Welfare Meets Human Welfare led by our 2020 3Rs Fellow Dr. Megan LaFollette and (2) Mental Wellbeing in Laboratory Animal Professionals: A Cross-Sectional Study of Compassion Fatigue, Contributing Factors, and Coping Mechanisms by University of Guelph & Charles River experts.
In these papers, worse compassion fatigue was associated with
- Less social support
- Higher animal stress/pain
- Less enrichment frequency/diversity
- Stronger desires to provide more enrichment
- Physical euthanasia methods
- Less control over performing euthanasia
- Working as a trainer or at universities
- Longer working hours
- Lower emotional stability, openness, and extraversion
Furthermore, personnel reported that worse compassion fatigue was influenced by understaffing, close relationships with research animals, a lack of resources/training for compassion fatigue, a poor relationship with superiors, poor mental health, and poor physical health.
Recent review publications including "Strengthening Workplace Well-Being in Research Animal Facilities" and "Compassion Fatigue, Euthanasia Stress, and Their Management in Laboratory Animal Research" provide excellent overviews and proposed methods to alleviate compassion fatigue. Note that research evidence is not always available to demonstrate their effectiveness, but these strategies may be worth trying.
Here are some ways that institutions & individuals can work to manage workplace stress and support workplace well-being:
- 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.
Related to compassion fatigue, is the issue of cognitive dissonance. This occurs when personnel hold two conflicting ideas at the same time. For example, personnel may believe that both animal wellbeing and animal use in research are very important, but at times both factors can conflict. As a result, personnel can experience feelings of discomfort & frustration. To read more on this issue see the 2020 publication by Dr. Engel and colleagues titled "Cognitive Dissonance in Laboratory Animal Medicine & Implications for Animal Welfare."
To read the published peer-reviewed paper by Dr. LaFollette and colleagues with extensive references visit Frontiers in Veterinary Medicine.
A relevant comment on Building emotional resilience in the animal research community was published in October 2020.
To read the published peer-reviewed paper by Dr. Newsome and colleagues with extensive references visit JAALAS to download the paper.
Read tips for Strengthening Workplace Well-Being in Research Animal Facilities (October 2020) published in Frontiers.
Read another cross-sectional study on the Mental Wellbeing in Laboratory Animal Professionals: A Cross-Sectional Study of Compassion Fatigue, Contributing Factors, and Coping Mechanisms (October 2020) published in JAALAS.
Additionally, Julie Squires is a Compassion Fatigue Specialist with experience working with laboratory animal professionals. You can find more information on her resources on her website. She has presented several free webinars to the community such as Radical Self-Care For Radical Times In the Lab Animal Community during the COVID-19 crisis and Going Beyond Compassion Fatigue.
Below, you can view the recent talk our 3Rs Fellow, Dr. Megan LaFollette gave in collaboration with NC3Rs on compassion fatigue in laboratory animal research.
A similar presentation was given by Dr. Megan LaFollette with commentary on compassion fatigue from Dr. Cindy Buckmaster in April 2020. Co-housed by SUBR & AMP. Listen here.