Compassion Fatigue, Burnout, and Compassion Satisfaction

As elephant advocates, we’ve witnessed never ending traumas inflicted on elephants, one of the gentlest and most intelligent of all mammals on earth.  Many of us are not only aware of the suffering, but also embody their pain. We want to alleviate their suffering instantaneously but feel helpless, especially if they are in a far off land. You may feel engulfed by the suffering of other beings because you are a compassionate person and may be an empath.

A Lonely and Confined Female Asian Elephants

Given the onslaught of negative news on the social and television news media, our own suffering can become so overwhelming that sometimes we can become completely paralyzed and helpless. This could ultimately lead to conditions such as Compassion Fatigue (CF) and Burnout (BO).

Symptoms of CF in elephant advocates are depression, feeling anxious, negative spontaneous thoughts of elephant trauma, feeling numb, and avoiding things you usually find pleasurable. With CF you will have a reduced ability to feel the pain of the suffering or you may not be able to bear the suffering the elephants endure. Higher levels of CF may markedly reduce the confidence of volunteers and donors.

With BO, symptoms arise from long-term involvement in emotionally trying situations. When we experience BO, we are physically, emotionally, and mentally spent. Also, with BO, it is not related to traumatic exposure. BO is also different from CF in that it occurs slowly over time and is related to physical exhaustion.

Compassion Satisfaction (CS) is related to feeling positive experiences in helping the voiceless elephants. CS involves feel-good activities to help elephants. Advocates feel that they can really make a difference in their work. Those who experience CS are more balanced to vicarious or visceral trauma (felt deeply in physical body). Higher levels of CS promote focus on the bigger picture and more retainability in advocacy. This study showed no relationship to CS and CF. However, there is a correlation to CS and BO; So ensuring advocates and donors have CS is vital.

I used three assessments to measure my outcomes. The first scientific assessment of survey questions measured CF, BO, and CS. Examples of questions:

“My elephant advocacy work makes me satisfied.”

“I’m proud of what I can do to advocate for elephants”.

“As a result of my elephant advocacy, I have intrusive, frightening thoughts”. 

The second assessment investigated how the advocacy activity overload (how many activities one does to advocate for elephants) may increase the likelihood of compassion fatigue, burnout, and satisfaction. I also measured frequency of these same activities. For instance, I measured how often an advocate may sign petitions; travel to sanctuaries, read or write elephant blogs, etc.      

The last assessment I implemented was a numerical code system of the effort it takes to advocate for elephants. For instance, if an advocate only signs one petition a year they would get one point, but if someone signed over 20 petitions a year they would get 2 points. People in the 5 range, for example, would organize one fundraiser, people who organized 3 or more fundraisers would get a 6.  People in the 9 or ten point range would be advocates with boots on the ground such as anti-poaching troops, those who run elephant sanctuaries or rescue abandoned or injured elephants.

I contacted people from Facebook (FB) Elephant Advocacy Groups to answer the two assessments, and invited more than 140 strangers to participate by writing to them via FB messenger. Over 90 people from Canada, across the UK, United States, Australia, Tasmania, and South Africa volunteered.

Results:

Compassion Fatigue: 14% of the participants suffered from low levels, 77% suffered from average levels and .09% had high levels of compassion fatigue.

Compassion Burnout: 33 out of 91 people had low burnout = 36%, with 58 out of 91 subjects suffering from average burnout = 64%.

 Compassion Satisfaction -23 out of 91 participants had average compassion satisfaction = 25%, whereas 68 out of 91 subjects had high compassion satisfaction = 75%.

The scientific results suggest that advocacy activities and frequency of these activities do not predict CF nor BO.  Similarly, there is no correlation between total effort (load burden levels of 1-10), and CF. CS not related to CF, but rather to lower levels of BO.

Fundraising NGO’s may want to assess these frequently to ensure volunteers, staff, and financial donors stay in it for the long haul, helping your organization. To get an assessment, please call a mental health professional.  

Indications for Further Research

Many subjects said without prompting that in the first year or so of their elephant advocacy, they suffered from intense compassion fatigue symptoms. Maybe an investigation into the length of time one has advocated for elephants in relation to compassion fatigue should be addressed. Conservation/elephant welfare groups may want to consider ways to reduce the risk of compassion fatigue and burnout in their advocates, employees, and volunteers. 

Do advocates who have “boots on the ground” suffer higher levels of compassion fatigue? Is witnessing horrors imposed on elephants in person more mentally, psychologically, and physically damaging than viewing on a social media site or documentary?

Lastly, seven out of 91 advocates interviewed told me, without my prompting, that they were disabled from issues with ambulation (walking and mobility). Most likely seven in 91 people in the general public will not be suffering from disability – it’s an awfully high percentage. It begs the question whether people with ambulation disability have more empathy for elephants that are also immobilized by chains and suffer from pain and torture? 

The bottom line is this.  NGO’s do need to vehemently ensure that their volunteers experience compassion satisfaction and derive pleasure from advocacy, knowing they are contributing to the greater good.

One thing is certain!! Without volunteers and financial contributions, bringing an end to the suffering of elephants is incomprehensible. Organizations may want to consider a reward program to keep volunteers engaged and happy. For active volunteers, consider having a psychologist prepare a video on fatigue, burnout and satisfaction or give a talk and standardized assessments for compassion fatigue and burnout.

Coauthored by Sangita Iyer

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  • Mary Parker
    commented 2018-07-14 18:13:31 -0700
    Wow, these results are fascinating, though I’m not really surprised, having experienced some of the symptoms of CF as well in various arenas. I would imagine that these results could be similar in many different areas of advocacy, whether it’s for elephants, any other animal, children, or the elderly. I would be interested in knowing if any similar studies have been done in these areas. Beautifully written, Leslie, and thank you for being a champion for those beautiful creatures that need our help.
  • Melinda Brown
    commented 2018-07-13 13:06:06 -0700
    Proud to have been one of the 90 who participated (spoke with you)!!!! We must continue to advocate for elephants (Asian and African) as well as other wildlife we have a passion for because they need us to be their voices! Thank you for this opportunity Leslie!
  • Tammy Jones
    commented 2018-07-13 12:33:18 -0700
    Beautiful article that touches on so many of the things I feel as I advocate for elephants. It helps me to see what I have felt analyzed and drilled down to scientific data. Sonetimes my CF forces me to step away for a period of time to regroup. I have felt the feelings described by the author so acutely that I sometimes find myself overwhelmed and paralyzed by the enormity of the needs of the elephants. This also parallels other causes for which I also advocate. But in the end, I am always drawn back into doing my best to help out of love for the elephants! The work we do may not save , every elephant, but if we have helped even one it is worth the effort.