After the Webinar: In It for the Long Haul – Combatting Compassion Fatigue and Enhancing Resiliency. Q&A with Hilary Anne Hager

Webinar presenter Hilary Anne Hager answered a number of your questions after her webinar, In It for the Long Haul: Combatting Compassion Fatigue and Enhancing Resiliency for Animal Welfare Professionals. Here are just a few of her responses.



Audience Question: What was the third type of trauma, you said? There’s primary, secondary, and what is the third one? 

Hilary Anne Hager: It’s tertiary. Primary is when it happens to you. Secondary is when you are with some other traumatized person or being. Tertiary is when you are the person who is in contact with the person, not the one who experiences trauma, but the person who’s been exposed to that other trauma, so you could be the partner of the veterinarian working with the animal that was hit by a car and so on.


Audience Question: What is the best advice you have, or that you can give someone who has been in the animal field for over 10 years, and you have compassion fatigue? You have a new boss who is constantly changing everything and keeps putting more work on staff. We keep losing staff and you keep getting more jobs added on. How do you help? 

Hilary Anne Hager: Sad to say, that is probably a common experience in a lot of organizations especially right now when the labor market is what it is and people are not interested in doing low-paid work and being treated poorly which is sometimes what happens in a lot of animal organizations because of the pay scale because the public is, it’s a real challenging time. So, the way here’s what I would suggest. When I had a similar situation where everybody in the system was, it was a very dysfunctional system, and everybody was really suffering. And I spent some time. I actually went to a therapist which is not just always the answer necessarily. But in this case it was. And every time I would go to her she would say, “Okay, Hillary, on a scale of one to 10. How committed are you to being here?” And every week, even though it was a really hard time. I was like, “I’m like a 7 or an 8.” She’s like, “All right. Well, so now we understand that the goal here is to help you figure out how to be okay, even if nothing else around you changes. And this is where you want to be.” And one week I went in, and I was like “A three”, and she’s like, “Ooh, hey, does this mean we could talk about you getting a different job?” I was like, “No, I just had a hard week.” So, the reason I mentioned this is that I think that you know I there are tricky times where you sometimes have to lead from another position, and you have to manage up. So, in this circumstance, what I might say is depending on the nature of the relationship you have with your supervisors to go to them and talk about the consequences. I’m sure you know how this is impacting people, and I am sure that there are many cases where they are aware of it, and they’re trying to do it, but the labor market is what it is, and they just don’t have people in. But you’re going to have to figure out what not to do and what is not going to get done, and that is very tricky. The other thing I would say is that the benefit that we have in this business in many cases is that we can have volunteers come in. And so, it’s not always a paid solution. You can have people come in and volunteer to do work that can be really meaningful and impactful and give you a little breathing space. But you have to have a culture that accepts, that will be a place where volunteers can thrive, and when everybody in the system is experiencing compassion fatigue, it’s not always fair to just bring somebody in and wish them luck. They’re going to get, like thrown into the grinder of people’s upset. So, I would say, speaking to the manager. Let them know the dynamic and say like, “We are asking right now for help. This is not sustainable, and I want us to be able to sustain this work. How can we do things differently?” And that would be my suggestion. But ultimately, if your manager is not interested in changing, and they are not making the adjustments. Then it’s up to each of us as individuals to make the decision about whether or not we want to continue doing the work, and there are lots of ways we can help animals that don’t involve us killing ourselves on behalf of this, in doing this work in a place that’s under-resourced, and that’s a hard answer. I don’t want you all to quit your jobs, but sometimes that’s the thing you have to do. It’s not a fixable situation, unfortunately.

Host:  It’s so rare I get to do this. But I’m going to chime in on what you just said because I had that situation with a boss about 10, 15 years ago, and to be fair, my boss didn’t realize what he had been doing. He had just gotten so used to thinking, “Hey? I’ll just dish this task to Chris and Chris will take care of it” He had just gotten so used to me being his Girl Friday that I just became like a third appendage, and he had not realized how much extra he had been adding to my workload. So sometimes it takes us talking to the leader and saying, “Hey, I really want to do a good job for you. I want to do a good job for the organization. But help!“ and I literally walked in with a list of like 52 things and said, “Where do you want me to start? What’s the most important of these 52 things?” And Jim was so awesome about it because he took a step back, and it’s like, “I had not realized what I had been doing. Thank you.” Now I realize he may have been a little bit more enlightened than some managers, but for those of you who are in that situation, I promise, screwing up the courage and finding a way, and having your list of tasks all organized is helpful because sometimes they just don’t know. They just haven’t realized it because they, themselves, are under fire as well.

Hilary Anne Hager:  Yeah, that’s right. And they probably also have their own compassion fatigue they’re dealing with.


Audience Question You talked about how even if we ourselves aren’t experiencing compassion fatigue, our teammates might. What do we do if we suspect our coworkers having or experiencing compassion fatigue? How do I start the conversation with them? Can you kind of discuss how we might have that conversation and how it differs if it’s a peer versus we’re observing it in our subordinate versus our boss? It all may be the same compassion fatigue conversation, but do we handle them differently?

Hilary Anne Hager: Yeah, this reminds me again. I told you memes are my life, but there’s that one about like “At no time in the history of humankind has anyone ever calmed down by being told to calm down,” and I think about that one a lot, because it is very tricky, you know it, especially when you have people who are angry, again, because anger is a distancing behavior. If you go up to them and say, “Hey, I think that you’re having a hard time here you should probably do something about that.” It could go over very poorly, right? And so, my experience in this is I would say sort of twofold. One is to really focus on yourself and what you’re doing for yourself because you cannot really influence other people’s behavior. I mean, all you can do is do things for yourself, and so you can in a transparent way, say, “I went to this workshop, I learned about this, and I see that this is the way it’s showing up for me. And so, I’m going to make some different decisions. And I might need your help in holding me accountable with these things because I really want to be mindful because I want to be able to stick around.”

So, that’s one way, just like you’re focused on yourself. And then, you know, if you’re the person who’s like not losing your mind in the middle of all of things, people are like, “I wonder what she’s doing like that looks pretty interesting.” But when I also would say, is that what often happens is that there is a specific behavioral note about these kinds of signs and symptoms showing up in very specific ways in the way that people interact with other people. You know, I mentioned earlier, like avoiding people, mocking people like the gossiping stuff, like the anger stuff. Maybe they’re skipping steps and processes, they’re not doing a good job then. And so sometimes what you have to do is actually address the way that it’s manifesting and not what’s underlying. You can’t go to them and say, “Hey? I think you’re really sad, like, let’s talk about that.” I mean that sounds not like a good example. But you know, “Hey? I think you have compassion fatigue. Let’s talk about it.” But you might be able to say, “I have observed these behaviors, and I worry because this is not typical for you, and this like seems out of alignment. And I want to know what’s going on because it used to not be that way. Let’s have this conversation. I want to be supportive.” And you know, if you’re an organization that has an EAP, you can always re-refer them to that like, I don’t think I always have to like all of a sudden, become therapists, and I’m not a therapist. So, we don’t have to pretend to be a therapist, but we can at least acknowledge that we know this is a thing, and depending on the nature of the relationship you have with that person, you might be able to say, like, “Look. I’m not a doctor. I’m not trying to diagnose you. But I just want to say I went to this. I saw a lot of myself here in this, and I also frankly, see some of it new. And so, I just want to make sure that you know this is a thing, and maybe we can work on it together, we’re in it together, maybe we can work on being accountability buddies to get there. And so that’s that is probably the best approach than going and telling somebody like, “Hey, I learned all about you, and you’re in terrible shape.”


Audience Question: You talked about how compassion fatigue can be tied to turnover or other organizational symptoms of worker’s comp, absenteeism, etc. Do you know if there’s research, or do we have a sense of the level of turnover rates or the level of workman’s comp rates in the animal welfare or animal control organizations? Is there nationwide research that’s been done on any of this for our industry?

Hilary Anne Hager: Not that I not that I’m aware of, which does not mean that it doesn’t exist honestly. I don’t know the answer to that question. It is a really interesting one. I do think that labor has more leverage and power in our economy than it ever has before. And you know, and I think that part of you know, going through the pandemic and what is essential work, what was not, how people are existing in the world as it relates. I think we all did a lot of introspection, and what we’re willing to tolerate. And anecdotally, I can tell you that it seems like most organizations are struggling right now with hiring people, with retaining people. And I think that it’s this combination in many cases of people. Maybe they could tolerate being, you know, being yelled at by the public if they’re well paid. Or they could be low paid if they if it was like a really great experience. But not getting a lot of pay, and to have it not feel good. People are like I could go and do any number of jobs, make more money, and like, turn off my phone at the end of the day and not be on the clock all the time. So, people are making that choice. And so that’s why I think it’s even more important than ever that we focus on this individually and as an organization because it’s not enough to just say, “Hey, you get to hang out with animals sometimes,” cause many times we’re working so hard. We never even get to have our hands on an animal in a way we’re not doing something to them right where we can just enjoy them.


Audience Question: How do we deal with a manager who seems not to care about the shelter and the animals as much as the staff does? 

Hilary Anne Hager: Yeah. I think a lot of people have that sentiment. I think sometimes volunteers feel that way about staff. Volunteers come in and they’re like they feel like they have more connection with the animals sometimes than the staff do, and staff are just going through the motions, and they’re not as emotionally connected. I guess my first thought is that I would actually really challenge my own assumption about whether or not that is true. People manifest their emotions in different ways. And just because somebody isn’t crying at the same time that I’m crying doesn’t mean that they don’t care as much. I also think that there are some people who really have to shut off their emotions at work just to be able to get through the day. Now, that doesn’t mean that those behaviors don’t sometimes manifest in ways that are harmful to the animals. And so, what I would say is that instead of making any assumptions about what level of concern that manager has for the animals compared to other people is to really understand the ways that the behavior that they’re engaging, that gives you the idea they don’t care as much about the animals is actually impacting the animals. Whether that is affecting the stay, live release rates, or all of the things. So, you can tie it to a behavior not like you can’t describe motives to people’s behavior. And so, instead of even thinking like, I guess they don’t care as much as I do. What I would do is say, “Here are the impacts. These are the ways that we that the system that we have in place is having a deleterious effect on the animals.” As animal welfare professionals, we understand our obligation to maintain the well-being of the animals. And so, this, you know, these are the areas of concern and see where you can get, because it could be a budget consideration. It could be that they care a whole lot, but their hands are tied. There’s all kinds of things that could get in the way. But I would focus on what the impact is on the animals. And then have a plan for how it can be improved that doesn’t involve hiring a bunch of staff and having a bigger budget that you’re not necessarily going to be able to get right in the short term.



Click Here to Watch a Recording of In It for the Long Haul: Combatting Compassion Fatigue and Enhancing Resiliency for Animal Welfare Professionals.



Additional Resources
7 months ago
Burnout and Resilience: What Criminal Justice Professionals Need to Know
Working in the criminal justice system means being regularly exposed to trauma on top of the stress […]
10 months ago
Thoughts about Officer Burnout from Sherri Martin
Sherri Marin and Dr. Jacqueline Drew shared so many great data points and insights from their resear […]
2 years ago
Blueprint for Resilience – How to Reverse Engineer Burnout & Compassion Fatigue
People often compartmentalize the symptoms that they are experiencing into physical, mental, or emot […]
3 years ago
Understanding Compassion Fatigue for First Responders and Criminal Justice Professionals
Who helps the helpers when they’re the ones who need help? Work for those in the helping professio […]