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Occupational Stress & Compassion Fatigue: The effects on workers in animal-related occupations

By Rebekah Scotney

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The study of occupational stress and compassion fatigue in personnel working in animal related occupations has gained momentum over the last decade. The impact of these conditions on employee mental wellbeing, workplace productivity and morale is notable and has become more recognised by those who are employed in animal-related occupations. However, there remains incongruence in understanding what is currently termed compassion fatigue and the associated unique contributory factors. Animal-related occupational stress and compassion fatigue are important issues as they can have such a negative impact on people. However, they are largely overlooked in the animal health sector and to date, are very much under researched. There is a need to build a body of evidence-based knowledge in this area and the aims of this thesis are to begin to address gaps in the literature. The overall aim of this thesis was to conduct a number of projects in order to investigate, describe and quantify factors relating to euthanasia induced stress and, occupational stress and distress associated with working in animal-related occupations. Participants included those working as laboratory animal technicians, veterinary nurses and veterinarians, animal shelter employees, animal control officers and ancillary staff such as receptionists, volunteers and foster carers.

To initially scope and explore the area of animal-related occupational stress and compassion fatigue, a systematic review of euthanasia in animal care workers was conducted. This review showed that there is a high incidence of occupational stress and euthanasia induced stress in animal health care personnel. Working with animals, and performing euthanasia, can evoke traumatic stress responses and compromise the wellbeing of animal health care employees. To further tease out the context and consequences of euthanasia and occupational stress, a survey which relied on the ProQoL was conducted. This research showed that whilst most people who work in animal-related occupations experience average or above average compassion satisfaction from the work that they do every day, they also report experiencing the negative aspects of caring such as burnout and secondary traumatic stress. Veterinarians and animal research technicians reported the lowest level of compassion satisfaction. A greater risk of burnout was shown by those who had been working in an animal-related occupation for longer and women were reported as facing a greater risk of secondary traumatic stress than men. 

Furthermore, focus group interviews were utilised to capture the highly contextualised, emotive expression of employees in regard to the impact of euthanasia and working in animal-related occupations. ‘Stress and distress’ was overwhelmingly identified as a factor most associated with working with animals. Animal attendants and nurses working in animal shelters reported the highest level of stress and distress followed closely by those in management roles in animal shelters and veterinary nurses working in emergency practice. Further analysis revealed that whilst there were many similar contributing factors causing the stress and distress between the occupations, there were also specific contextual differences. A key finding of this study was the resounding positive link between engaging in social support and communicating with like-minded people; those who share common goals and similar stressors.

Descriptive data pertaining specifically to the role of management in combating or addressing occupational stress and compassion fatigue gained perspectives and perceptions was elicit directly from those employed in managerial roles. When comparing the sub-themes identified from each of the employee focus groups with those identified from the management focus group, an overlap of common themes suggests that those working in management roles in animal-related occupations are equally susceptible to stress and distress as those who work under them. Thus, those working in managerial roles also represent an at-risk group for developing occupational stress and compassion fatigue.

An obligation to impart knowledge and create an awareness of compassion fatigue should be foremost for all who work in an animal-related occupation, particularly those who are most at risk. In being able to discuss thoughts, feelings, emotions and experiences with like-minded people, participants who contributed to this thesis received tangible evidence that they are not alone in their feelings and, that their reactions, both emotional and behavioural are often mirrored by their colleagues, regardless that they may not be evoked by the exact same events or situations. Future research should include longitudinal studies at both an individual and organisational level to evaluate coping mechanisms and strategies employed that may prevent clinical symptoms of occupational stress or compassion fatigue and contribute to employee longevity. Investigations of improved education and awareness as well as research in education and facilitation of the development of all staff in emotional intelligence and emotional resilience needs to be conducted. 

Results from this thesis should inform the development of resilience training programs and preventative strategies specifically targeted towards those working in animal-related occupations. Research which implements and investigates the effects of these structured prevention and intervention programs would also be a priority.


Mason N McLary

HABRI Central

Date 2017
Pages 167
Publisher The University of Queensland
Location of Publication Queensland, Australia
Department Veterinary Science
Degree Philosophy
DOI 10.14264/uql.2017.502
Language English
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal-assisted activities
  2. Animal roles
  3. Animals in culture
  4. Animal welfare
  5. Compassion
  6. Mental health and well-being
  7. Occupational Stress
  8. Occupations and Professions
  9. Social Environments
  10. Stress
  11. Working animals