Compassion Fatigue

Information and resources about workplace stress for research animal professionals.

Background

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.

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 (Engel 2020). As a result, personnel can experience feelings of discomfort & frustration (Engel 2020). 

What factors are linked to higher compassion fatigue?

How can compassion fatigue be prevented/mitigated?

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.

Are there any exemplary compassion fatigue programs?

The University of Washington has a program focused on Compassion In Science called Dare 2 Care.

The University of Michigan also has a Compassion Awareness Project.

Further Reading & References

Peer reviewed compassion fatigue paper
Lab Animal Welfare Meets Human Welfare: A Cross-Sectional Study
Mental Wellbeing in Lab Animal Professionals: A Cross-Sectional Study
Emotional dissonance among UK animal technologists: evidence, impact and management implications
Strengthening Workplace Well-Being in Research Animal Facilities
Using a staff survey to customize burnout and compassion fatigue mitigation recommendations in a lab animal facility
Creating space to build emotional resilience in the animal research community
Compassion Fatigue, Euthanasia Stress, and Their Management
Cognitive Dissonance in Laboratory Animal Medicine and Implications for Animal Welfare
Compassion Fatigue: The Cost of Caring

Webinars & Presentations

Below, you can view the talk our Program Manager, 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.

Screen Shot 2020-10-01 at 12.03.27 PM

Looking for more: 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.

See Next

Podcast: 3-Minute 3Rs