From the Director: Shedding Light on Compassion Fatigue

Elisa Hurley

By Elisa A. Hurley, PhD, executive director
PRIM&R is unique in the research ethics world, serving as we do both the human subjects research and animal care and use communities. And from this unique position, we often see bridges and links between work with animals and work with humans, whether it’s thinking about the translational impact research with animals has on understanding and treating human disease; identifying and addressing similarities in research oversight processes between human research protection and animal care and use programs; or recognizing parallels between the ethical concepts called into play in each domain – for example, risk/benefit analysis— and gleaning generalizable lessons from such commonalities.
I’ve recently been thinking about another bridge between humans and animals in the research world: compassion fatigue among the people who work with, care for, and oversee the welfare of laboratory animals. As a phenomenon, compassion fatigue is not limited to animal care and use—indeed, the topic is widely discussed in other caring professions (see for example, Compassion Fatigue: A Nurse’s Primer, this article from the Journal of Hospice and Palliative Nursing, or this Emergency Nurses’ Association Topic Brief)—but it is a predictable outcome of working with research animals.
For the purposes of this discussion, I define compassion fatigue as the unintended emotional distress, fatigue, or apathy that develops from caring for, investing in the wellbeing of, and bonding with, animals whose health or lives may be sacrificed for the good of discovery through research. Given the documented power of the human/animal bond, compassion fatigue can affect the well-being of highly skilled animal care and use professionals, and, ultimately, the care of the animals themselves.
While not all animal care and use professionals develop bonds with the animals for which they care, research in this area suggests that the majority of laboratory animal technicians “experience some form of attachment to a laboratory animal at least once in his or her career.” (Arluke, A. 1994. The Ethical Socialization of Animal Researchers. Lab Anim. 23(6):30-35; cited in Cost of Caring.) Indeed, the very practices designed to enhance research animal welfare can serve to strengthen these bonds. According to the American Association of Laboratory Animal Science’s (AALAS) publication, Cost of Caring:

Practices of gentle handling, compassion and patience serve to build the bond between humans and animals. The development of the human/animal bond can improve animal welfare by minimizing stress [on the animal], enhancing [the animal’s] sense of safety and security, and fostering trust [by the animal with the human handler]. The same can be said for what those practices do for the human handler. It is well documented that close contact with animals can create feelings of satisfaction and affection, lower blood pressure, and provide an overall sense of well-being. For an animal care professional, “…feelings of satisfaction can arise from knowing that not only basic husbandry needs are met, but that animal welfare is enhanced by connecting through compassion, affection, and respect.

This topic caught my interest because it seems to get relatively little attention. In fact, as pointed out in a recent AALAS webinar on the topic (Compassion Fatigue and Compassion Satisfaction in the Workplace: Is the Cost of Caring Affecting Me?), the phenomenon has only very recently been recognized as relevant in the laboratory animal field. There are few if any support services for those who work with research animals and suffer from compassion fatigue, and very little exists in the way of print or online resources. Moreover, animal care and use professionals who find themselves struggling with compassion fatigue may be ashamed of their feelings, and fear discussing them with either peers, who might ridicule them, or family members and others outside the lab, who might express disgust about the specific work or disapproval of research with animals all together.
In fact, this last point may be one reason why the topic doesn’t get more coverage in the research community. Given the sensitive and sometimes very polarized climate around animal research, we likely worry that even acknowledging compassion fatigue exists in our ranks might give fodder to animal rights groups, calling into question the commitment to the research, or the belief in its value, on the part of those who work with animals and feel this way, and becoming a talking point, or worse, a politically inflated and misconstrued headline.
So what can and should the animal care and use community do? First and foremost, we should acknowledge the very real emotional impact of caring for research animals. Indeed, there are a number of important reasons why we should talk about compassion fatigue more often, and more publicly. First, doing so will send a clear message to animal care and use staff that their feelings—whether of anxiety, stress, guilt, fear, sadness, denial, or apathy (all of which can be manifestations of compassion fatigue)—are natural, expected, and valid, and are, in fact, appropriate responses to emotionally difficult work.
Second, acknowledging compassion fatigue may help to build bridges with those who remain unconvinced of the value of well-conducted animal research: talking openly about the toll caring for animals takes on those who work in the lab or oversee lab animal research humanizes these front-line individuals, and demonstrates that it’s possible to think that research with animals is incredibly important and valuable, yet still react with empathy, guilt, or grief to the experiences and loss of the animals in the lab.
Third, talking about the issue within labs and more broadly within institutions might also serve to stop compassion fatigue from becoming an animal welfare issue in its own right. This last point alone should prompt institutional animal care and use committees (IACUCs) to give this topic space in their meetings. As AALAS’ Cost of Caring notes,

To safeguard against feelings of loss, individuals may engage in anticipatory grief practices in preparation for loss… Once the loss occurs, individuals may choose to ignore feelings of anxiety, grief, or bereavement rather than acknowledge and accept these emotions. [This] building of emotional walls, ignoring feelings, and disengaging from the animals can lead to personal emotional vulnerability, a potentially ineffective emotional safeguard, and a loss for the animals in developing feelings of trust, safety, and security.

There are, as a result, practical concerns for the institution in not addressing the impact of compassion fatigue on staff, including high rates of attrition and absenteeism, poor performance, low morale, and an uncaring or callous attitude toward animals that can lead to noncompliance around animal care and use.
A second step, beyond recognizing the issue, is to provide support, both culturally and operationally, within the organization. For instance:

Cultural Operational
Create an open atmosphere for discussion that encourages staff to acknowledge feelings; consider partnerships with counseling providers if your institution permits Institute a safe open-door policy, and processes/spaces for employees to reflect and remember
Consider institutional adoption program for animals suited to transition to a home or sanctuary environment (per institutional policies) Rotate staff to distribute job responsibilities and share difficult tasks, for instance have long-term care givers not participate in euthanasia, or excuse those who do not feel able to participate
Encourage individuals to build an outside support network of family and friends Offer educational opportunities that address humane animal care and use, animal welfare and ethics
Discuss why the research is important and potential benefits of the results  

List derived from AALAS, Cost of Caring
It seems clear that well-constructed, successful animal research programs will only benefit from acknowledging and helping to ameliorate the existence of compassion fatigue among all of those who have a role in promoting the welfare of laboratory animals, whether directly, in the lab, or indirectly, by overseeing research procedures as part of an IACUC. Addressing compassion fatigue and its effects is an emerging challenge for our community, and one where great gains can be made by just starting a conversation. So tell me, does your IACUC or institution deal with the issue of compassion fatigue? How? Do you talk about it with colleagues? Do you provide any support mechanisms? What could PRIM&R do to facilitate the conversation and help IACUCs and institutions manage compassion fatigue among staff?
Sources for additional resources: