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Stress and Animal Protection Work

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


Stress and Animal Protection Work

For many people, the concept of stress has become synonymous with animal protection work. However, stress can actually be a good thing. The trick for managers is to aim for an optimal level of stress in the work environment, harnessing the energy that stress creates in order to steer it in positive directions. This article, which explores the causes and symptoms of stress and burnout, is the first in a three part series. Subsequent articles will focus on how managers in this demanding field can take care of themselves (Part II) and how managers can take care of their staff (Part III).

In order to prepare ourselves to successfully cope with stress and prevent burn out, it’s important to understand exactly what these two conditions are and how they are related.

What is Stress?

Stress is a normal part of everyday life. It is simply the strain or tension (physical or mental) that results from an outside pressure or demand. Examples: The phone rings (outside demand)and we must decide (mental stress) whether or not to answer it. A dog pulls on his lead (outside pressure), and we stand perfectly still (physical stress) until he stops pulling, then walk forward again. Every change – small or large – creates stress. Indeed, the terms change and stress are sometimes used interchangeably. Positive changes – such as an animal going to a great home or 250 people signing up for your Walk for Animals – cause stress just as much as negative changes.

Individuals have variable responses to different stressors (demands and pressures). Some people thrive in the face of multiple demands and pressures, while other people are more comfortable with a steady, predictable pace of external stressors. Some people find the demands and requests of other people to be extremely stressful. Others find the demands of physical labor or mental concentration to be extremely stressful. The important thing is to understand and identify exactly what kinds of stressors affect you, and how much stress equals your optimal stress level (the point at which stress is energizing and motivating for you).

Additionally, stressors can affect the same people differently depending on the time or situation. So: Josh may be very comfortable on the adoption counter in the morning (when he is refreshed and energetic), but completely overwhelmed by the same work later in the afternoon (when he is tired and distracted by thoughts of picking his kids up from school and helping with their homework). Likewise, Sara may normally thrive in a loud, constantly changing and busy shelter environment, but visiting a similarly loud and busy teen center may feel overwhelming to her.

None of these preferences is “right” or “wrong”. What we find stressful is largely related to our personality or, if you will, our temperament. Just as we understand that a pit bull thrives on a lot of activity and mental stimulation and an old tiger kitty blossoms in sunshine and a cozy lap, so we can learn to understand the stressors, stress levels, and environments for ourselves and our staffs to be successful. Given that animal shelters tend to be noisy, fast paced, constantly changing environments, at first glance it might seem logical to load up our organizations with people who thrive on constant change (and stress). However, an entire staff of these folks would be extremely challenging to manage (think: kennel full of border collies) and would ensure only that you’re good at one thing: living with chaos. Most organizations recognize that in order to effect real change for animals, they have to move beyond chaos – which argues for having a balance of temperaments among your staff, and achieving an optimal stress level for the group.

What is Burnout?

Burnout is a syndrome with physical, mental, and emotional attributes. Although it is common to hear people say, “I’m burned out on this or that”, in fact, burnout is generally understood to be confined to people working in helping professions – particularly those professions with frequent emotionally charged situations. Burnout is a progressive condition, advancing through eight stages of severity. Like other health problems, burnout is easier to address in the early stages; with the ideal approach being one of prevention.

Researchers concur that there are three dimensions to burnout: (1) increased depersonalization, (2) decreased personal accomplishment, and (3) increased emotional exhaustion.1

(1) Depersonalization is evidenced in feeling distant from others, seeing others as “things” without feelings, and/or feeling indifferent to others. People experiencing depersonalization may say things like, “people are all idiots”, and may behave coldly or insensitively to people or animals in their care. Depersonalization is complicated for staff and volunteers in animal protection because in order to be able to function in our jobs, we have to achieve a certain level of distance from the animals we care for (otherwise, we wouldn’t even be able to tolerate putting them in cages and kennels). Yet this psychological distancing can go too far, isolating us not only from potential pain, but also from potential joy.

(2) People experiencing decreased personal accomplishment have a low impression of the value of their work or contribution, a negative attitude towards their work, or feel completely ineffective. These feelings are apparent in statements such as, “no matter what I do, I can’t make a difference – there are still always more animals the next day”, or “the more things change, the more things stay the same”. Because these people don’t believe their work is valuable, they may appear lackadaisical, or they may fail to show any enthusiasm for new projects, initiatives, or planning.

There is a somewhat spiral relationship between self esteem and burnout – particularly the depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment aspects – in that low self esteem creates greater risk for people to suffer from burn out, and burn out reduces self esteem further. The good news, of course, is that strengthening self esteem makes one more resilient to stress and burnout.

(3) Emotional exhaustion is the most serious of the three aspects of burnout. Marked by unrelenting physical, mental, and emotional fatigue, in early stages of emotional exhaustion people have low energy, have difficulty learning new things, and make frequent mistakes. In advanced stages of emotional exhaustion, people literally feel like they are at the end of their rope. People who work in fields like ours – where mistakes can lead to serious injury, suffering, or death of those we care for – are at particularly high risk to emotional exhaustion. The greater the gap between job demands and staff/volunteer skills, the greater the potential for emotional exhaustion. For this reason, ample orientation, training, and ongoing supervision and support is absolutely critical for staff and volunteers to feel comfortable and fully qualified to perform all of their duties and make good decisions.

When Does Stress Cause Burnout?

The stress that is most likely to lead to burnout is the stress of anxiety (fear or worry combined with uncertainty). In the work situation, anxiety results from low self esteem (worry about whether you’re capable of doing a good job), a lack of planning (making it impossible to know if you’re having any positive impact), and – most importantly – a discrepancy between your skills/knowledge and the demands of the job. This last – and most significant – source of anxiety as related to burnout is of particular concern in animal protection because so many of our staff and volunteer positions require skills in multiple areas: animal health, care, behavior, handling and training, communication, investigation, teaching, project management, and so on.

What Can Managers Do to Reduce Stress and Prevent Burnout?

Until recently, efforts to prevent burnout have been largely aimed at teaching individuals how to improve their self esteem and deal with their stress. This approach capitalizes on our natural human tendency to seek control. Unfortunately, because stress and change are constant – and therefore by their very nature beyond control – this individual approach to stress management is only minimally successful in preventing burnout. Effectively managing stress and preventing burnout requires a holistic approach whereby in addition to individual work, the organization institutes a comprehensive system of orientation, training, supervision, and ongoing support.2 Managers can adopt a 3 step strategy for achieving an optimal stress level in their organizations: Step 1) learn about stress, Step 2) develop a personal plan for coping with your own stress, and Step 3) institute a comprehensive orientation, training, supervision and support system within your organization. Congratulations; by reading this article you have begun to address step 1! Steps 2 and 3 will be covered in detail in the next two articles.

Click here for a list of stress indicators and coping behaviors.


1 Andre Bussing & Jurgen Glaser, Four stage process model of the core factors of burnout, Work & Stress Journal, 2000, vol 14, no 4, 329-346.

2 R.J. Taormina & C.M. Law, Approaches to preventing burnout: the effects of personal stress management and organizational socialization, Journal of Nursing Management, 2000, 8, 89-99.

Bergmann, Lawrence H., Critical Incident Stress Syndrome, Search & Rescue Society of British Columbia,, ciss1-6.

Robert T. Golembiewski & Robert T. Aldinger, Burnout and self esteem, Organization Development Journal, 1994, vol 12, no 3, 41-48.

Yvonne Rafferty, Ronald Friend, & Paul Landsbergis, The association between job skill discretion, decision authority and burnout, Work & Stress Journal, 2001, vol 15, no 1, 73-85.

How do you know if you’re “stressing out”?


  • changes in sleeping or eating (changes up or down)
  • becoming increasingly isolated from friends &/or family
  • physical complaints: headaches, neck & back pain, lingering colds, digestive problems, clumsiness, frequent injuries or minor illnesses
  • self abuse: verbally berating yourself, cutting or burning, risky behaviors
  • substance abuse: alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, caffeine, foods
  • not wanting to go to work
  • increase in negativity: anger, impatience, hopelessness
  • reduced personal effectiveness: forgetfulness, lateness, disorganization, poor performance

Coping behaviors that compound stress and accelerate burnout

  • substance abuse – alcohol, illegal or prescription/over the counter drugs, caffeine, nicotine, etc.
  • pretending there’s no problem
  • negativity: complaining, criticizing, blaming, tantruming
  • withdrawal from friends, family, coworkers, support systems
  • aggression or hostility

Coping behaviors that reduce stress

  • exercise
  • self care: good food, plenty of water, rest, rewards
  • social networking: playing, laughing, talking, supporting
  • self esteem building: journal writing, therapy or counseling, meditation, self-help books, hobbies or group activities/classes
  • learning
  • positivity: planning for the future, affirming and rewarding yourself, finding the bright side
  • time management

© 2001 Bert Troughton
Re-prints with permission. Contact Bert at

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