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Preventing Staff Burnout

Bert Troughton, MSW, Director, SFSPCA / ASPCA Strategic Alliance


Preventing Staff Burnout

Stress is a given in animal protection work, but burnout doesn’t have to be. In this third article in our series on coping with stress, we’ll look at what managers can do to create a healthy work environment that diminishes risk of staff burnout.

A quick review: Burnout is a syndrome with physical, mental, and emotional attributes that progress through eight stages of severity. There are three dimensions to burnout: depersonalization, reduced personal accomplishment, and emotional exhaustion. Emotional exhaustion is the most debilitating and intransigent dimension of burnout and is primarily the result of job demands exceeding a person’s knowledge, skills, or preparation. In other words, there’s a gap between what a person knows and what s/he is required to do. This knowledge or skill gap causes even greater stress and emotional harm when the results from mistakes are potentially serious – for example, when mistakes could lead to risk of injury or death to self or others.

The stress of a knowledge or skill gap can be particularly hard to deal with because often employees are unable to identify particular skills or training that they are lacking. It’s a bit of a catch 22, in that often we are unaware of how little we actually know about a topic until we begin to learn about that topic in depth. Think, for example, of how knowledge of animal diseases influences our cleaning procedures, and yet how few of our cleaning staff are completely versed in the nature of these diseases and their transmission. If they were, these staff could not only perform their jobs more effectively, they could actually problem solve and function much more independently (think: with less supervision from you) and with greater confidence.

For years we have acknowledged a high turnover rate in animal protection and attributed it to the sad and brutal realities of the field. How then has it been possible for some organizations to maintain a stable staff for long periods of time? I propose that burnout is high in those animal protection organizations where orientation, training, and ongoing support is mediocre and minimal, and that those organizations which maintain a stable staff have learned to take care of their staff by ensuring they have the knowledge and skills to successfully perform their jobs. Indeed, current research on burnout in other high stress fields such as nursing and search and rescue clearly demonstrates that comprehensive orientation and training is critical for maintaining a stable, competent, and healthy staff.

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Orientation Provides the Foundation

As a manager, you have a brief opportunity with new employees to shape their first experience in the (sometimes strange) world of animal protection. One way to think about orientation is as an interpretation tool for the employee. In addition to the standard fare of most orientations – such as personnel policies and employee parking – consider including discussions and information on anything that will help a new employee to better understand the work, the organization, and her/his role. This includes:

  • History – how and when and why did your organization come into being? how and why has your organization evolved since then?
  • Mission & Vision – what is the primary purpose of your organization? what are you striving to achieve in the next five to ten years? how will that make a difference for animals, people, and the community?
  • Big Picture – what’s the world of animal protection all about? what are the current goals, accomplishments, philosophical questions, and debates in the field? what’s the lingo of the field? how and where does your organization fit in relation to the big picture?
  • Community – what are the community’s needs? what is the nature of the relationship between the organization and the community? who else is doing similar work in the community and what is the organization’s relationship to them?
  • Tour & Introductions – what happens in every space in the organization and how does that function relate back to the mission and vision? who are the incredible people who work there and what knowledge, talents, and energy do they bring to the whole team?
  • Policy – what are the organization’s philosophical, practical, safety, and personnel policies?
  • Supervision & Training Plan – what is the personal mission and job description for the new employee? how and when will training be accomplished? who will be the supervisor and who can the employee go to with questions?

Obviously this kind of orientation isn’t accomplished in an hour or two. As long as orientation begins as soon as possible upon hire, it’s perfectly OK to guide new employees through extended orientations that take place over the first few months of their tenure. The purpose of orientation is not to brainwash new employees, but to provide them with credible information and a broad context so that they can make meaning of the interactions, events, and processes going on in our organizations. A good orientation is a great way to say to the employee, “Welcome! We’re glad you’re here, and we’re committed to helping you to be part of our team and to be successful in your job.” The importance of this message in laying the foundation for an employee’s success cannot be understated. People who feel valued by their organizations are more inclined to take their jobs seriously and to value the organization and other people who work there.

Training Initiates and Facilitates Learning

Training is a process of providing information, guidance, and practice to develop a person’s knowledge and skills (i.e.: application of that knowledge). Training shapes the growth of an employee within the organization. While training ideally continues throughout an employee’s tenure, for the purposes of this article we will focus on the initial training provided in the first six months of a new job.

The first step in designing a successful training program is to recognize that success is defined by how well the employee learns. Initial training can be considered successful when the employee can demonstrate knowledge of:

  • everything s/he is supposed to do and how,
  • why it’s supposed to be done that way [Knowing “why” enables employees to problem solve and function independently.]
  • where and when their tasks are performed,
  • who (animals, community and other staff) is impacted by what they do [This helps employees to see the importance of their role in the context of achieving the organization’s mission. It also helps employees to function as effective team members.]
  • what to do if something goes wrong and/or they are unable to perform one or more of their tasks [“what if” tests competency, instills personal responsibility, and creates a sense of partnership between the employee and the supervisor. Often the answer to “what if” is, “consult with my supervisor.”]

Given the complexity of animal sheltering, this level of competency is easily six months in the making for nearly all animal care, handling, and adoption staff.

Unfortunately, one of the least effective methods of training is also the method most commonly used in animal protection: on-the-job-training or OTJ. While some OTJ is necessary at some point in the training, relying almost exclusively on OTJ is problematic because

it usually occurs too soon (often before the employee has received an orientation, i.e.: a context for interpreting events),
it is too much information at once,
it’s with the wrong people (training is a skill; knowing how to perform a function does not qualify someone to train that function),
it takes place in a climate not conducive to learning because it’s too noisy, fast paced and stressful, and
it occurs without adequate supervision and monitoring to see what, exactly, the employee is learning and how well they’re learning.

So what’s the alternative? In addition to workshops, courses, videos, and manuals offered by national organizations and humane federations, consider custom developing some specific skills modules for your own training program. Recognize that people have a variety of learning styles and have had previous experiences (both good and bad) with learning so make your training fun. Incorporate the principles of humane training into your program (see “Managers, Use Your Dog Training Skills” the September, ’01 Management Expert feature).

Be creative and enlist help from existing staff. Popular games adjusted to incorporate shelter knowledge can be used very effectively to train new staff and to refresh the skills of seasoned staff. For example, create Jeopardy quizzes using facts on shelter diseases, cleaning procedures, and animal nutrition. Make a matching game out of your shelter statistics. Safety procedures and practices can be transformed into a scavenger hunt for exits, eye wash stations, fire extinguishers, and msds forms. As you can see, this kind of training not only makes learning fun, but it enhances the team environment.

Follow a plan for developing training modules. First, clarify the purpose of the specific training (why or how will learning this skill help your organization?). Second, identify exactly which skill(s) the training will focus on (for example, reading feline body language). Third, specify exactly what the employee(s) should be able to do at the conclusion of the training (for example, to safely lift, hold, and move cats, and to recognize potential safety risks with certain cats). Next, create or design games, demonstrations, and supervised hands-on experiences to train the target skill(s) (for example, a slide show and guessing game of cat postures and their meaning, followed by a lecture). Finally, accumulate training resources – such as books, articles, videos, and audio tapes – that will provide further information for the employee(s).


Many staff come to this work with no prior experience in the field but incredibly eager and willing to jump in to make a difference. In essence, during the first few weeks on the job, these new employees are like sponges, soaking up everything around them. By providing comprehensive orientation and training for your staff, you can ensure they’re “soaking up” the things that will best help them and your organization. As it turns out, your best defense against burnout, is also a strategy for being a productive and successful organization.

© 2002 Bert Troughton
Re-prints with permission. Contact Bert at

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