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.

Although relatively limited research has been conducted in our field, recent research title Laboratory Animal Welfare Meets Human Welfare by Purdue University's Gaskill Lab led by our 2020 3Rs Fellow Dr. Megan LaFollette shows that animal and human welfare intertwined.

Worse professional quality of life 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

A recent review titled "Compassion Fatigue, Euthanasia Stress, and Their Management in Laboratory Animal Research" from Dr. Joseph Newsome & colleagues gives an excellent overview and proposed methods to alleviate compassion fatigue. Note that research evidence is not available to demonstrate their effectiveness, but these strategies may be worth trying.

  • Institutional established wellness programs that may include round-table discussions or seminars on compassion fatigue or self-care.
  • Communicate the value of research to all research staff
  • Acknowledgment that the human-animal bond may make euthanasia difficult and always provide care staff the option to opt-out or opt-in to euthanasia
  • Establish a day or monthly recognition memorial to recognize the animals' contributions & bonds that have been developed
  • Encourage an open atmosphere of dialogue about animal research both within and outside of work
  • Ensure that animal enrichment is well-supported at the institution and allow staff to implement safe ideas to support their animals. One idea is to have enrichment crafting events.

To see how institutions have implemented these strategies you can view University of Michigan's Compassion Awareness Project and University of Washington's Dare 2 Care Program.

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.

Sad woman looking away

To learn more in-depth about the study from Dr. Megan LaFollette as well as hear commentary on compassion fatigue from Dr. Cindy Buckmaster listen to a free webinar conducted in April 2020 during the COVID-19 crisis co-hosted by SUBR & AMP.

To read the published peer-reviewed paper by Dr. Newsome and colleagues with extensive references visit JAALAS to download the paper.

For further resources, AALAS also has a variety of Compassion Fatigue Resources such as a Cost of Caring Brochure, presentation, training short, and webinars.

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.