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Facing fears in the animal welfare sector: Uncovering the anxieties of compassionate professionals

In 2022, the Atlantic ran a story titled ‘ Why It’s So Hard to Find a Veterinarian These Days’. Their conclusion, in summary, was there aren’t enough humans to take care of animals!


The animal welfare sector attracts people – both from veterinary and non-veterinary backgrounds - with a deep passion for care and well-being of animals. However, this noble calling comes with challenges that can impact the mental health and effectiveness of those working in the field. This can, in turn, lead to high rates of attrition.


In this post, we explore some common fears faced by animal welfare workers. We also provide some strategies for addressing these concerns to help build resilience and maintain a sense of purpose.


1. Fear of inadequacy


As a worker in the animal welfare sector, you may often feel a tremendous sense of responsibility for the animals in your care. However, on the flip side, one common challenge is the fear of inadequacy.


The American Psychological Association defines this inadequacy as an anxiety-driven belief that one's abilities, skills and accomplishments are insufficient or inferior.


The anxiety may manifest in the following ways:

  • Constantly comparing yourself with others and perceiving yourself as falling short.

  • Struggling with perfectionism and setting unrealistically high standards – something which has been noted in previous studies among animal welfare workers (Armitage-Chan & May, 2018).

  • Avoiding new challenges for fear of failure or exposure as inadequate.

  • Experiencing intense feelings of shame or guilt over perceived shortcomings.

  • Having a tendency to overfocus on your mistakes or weaknesses, while downplaying or dismissing your accomplishments and strengths.


These feelings may cause the individual worker to withdraw/shut down or act aggressively, depending on the coping style.


Some suggested coping strategies, which we can help further with, include:

  • Focusing on your accomplishments and celebrating small victories.

  • Acknowledging that perfection is not attainable and that you are doing your best.

  • Seeking feedback and guidance from colleagues and mentors.

  • Engaging in ongoing professional development to build your skills and confidence.


2. Fear of being emotionally overwhelmed


Witnessing animal suffering on a daily basis can take an emotional toll on even the most resilient individuals.


Emotional overwhelm is a state of being plagued by intense emotion that is difficult to manage. This can impact your ability to think and act rationally, and may also prevent you from effectively performing daily tasks.


Compassion fatigue is an example of this type of physical and emotional depletion that can come from caring for animals in significant emotional or physical distress.


Some suggested coping strategies, which we can help further with, include:

  • Practicing self-compassion.

  • Engaging in self-care activities and stress-reduction techniques.

  • Cultivating a support network of empathetic colleagues and friends.

  • Seeking professional help if feelings become unmanageable or interfere with daily functioning.


3. Fear of burnout


The demanding nature of animal care work may also contribute to the fear of burnout. Some factors which contribute to burnout among workers in this sector include:

  • Compassion fatigue (as highlighted previously).

  • High workloads and limited resources where staff often operate with tight budgets, which can result in under-staffing and increased pressure on workers.

  • Difficult and emotionally charged decision-making such as determining the best course of action for an animal.

  • Grief and loss through animal adoption, euthanasia or other circumstances as workers often form strong attachments to the animals they care for.

  • Public scrutiny and criticism as animal welfare workers may face criticism or scrutiny which can be challenging to navigate and can contribute to feelings of stress and burnout.


As a worker in this sector, you may also understandably worry about the consequences of burning out, such as noticing decreased work effectiveness, loss of passion for your work, or even having thoughts to leave this field entirely.


Some suggested coping strategies, which we can help further with, include:

  • Prioritising work-life balance and setting boundaries around work hours.

  • Developing a self-care routine that includes regular breaks and relaxation activities.

  • Communicating with supervisors about workload and concerns.

  • Engaging in activities that help recharge and maintain passion for the work.


4. Fear of public scrutiny and criticism


Animal welfare is a field that encompasses various philosophies and perspectives. This can lead to disagreements and potential vilification of those with opposing views. This can often arise from misunderstandings, misinformation, or differing beliefs about animal welfare.


For example, animal rights activists may criticise animal welfare workers for not advocating for more radical changes. On the other hand, others may see their efforts as going too far. Misinformation spread through social media or other sources can also contribute to misconceptions about the work.


It is why animal welfare workers often face criticism or scrutiny from the public. This fear of being judged, misunderstood, or even vilified for one’s actions can also result in creating significant stress and anxiety for the individual worker.


Some suggested coping strategies, which we can help further with, include:

  • Developing clear communication skills to explain decisions and actions.

  • Focusing on the positive impact of the work and the support of the wider community.

  • Engaging in advocacy and education to raise public awareness and understanding.

  • Seeking support from colleagues and supervisors when dealing with difficult situations.


Conclusion


Fears and anxieties are a natural part of working in the animal welfare sector - but they should not be left unaddressed.


Through acknowledging these fears and implementing coping strategies, animal welfare workers can build resilience, maintain their well-being, and continue to make a positive difference to the lives of animals in need.


Our team of psychologists and counsellors at Sentient are starting to work extensively with veterinarians and animal care workers seeking support for anxiety, depression, burnout, grief and trauma. For more information, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us for a chat.


Subject matter specialist on human-animal interactions: Dr Tani Khara



References

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). 'Fear of Failure'.


Armitage-Chan, E., & May, S. A. (2018). Identity, environment and mental wellbeing in the veterinary profession. VetRecord.

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