Burnout: the monster in the rescue closet
- by Vicki DeGruy
I'm so tired and
discouraged all the time. I feel like I'm on duty 24/7 and never get
a day off. The harder I work, the harder they want me to work.
Nothing ever gets better, it seems like it only gets worse. The dogs
don't stop coming no matter what I do.
I have days where my hands shake just thinking about picking up the
phone to call another owner who wants to dump their dog. I can
hardly bring myself to do it anymore. When I do, I just want to
scream at them.
My bills are all past due, I owe a fortune to the vet, there's no
food in the fridge, I'm using the charge card to make ends meet and
I'm over my credit limit again. I don't know how I'm going to buy
dog food this week.
Sometimes I grieve for the life I had before rescue. It's been so
long, I hardly remember the fun I used to have, hobbies, trips,
friends. I miss them so much!
I want to quit so badly but I can't. The dogs are depending on me to
save them. Thinking about quitting makes me feel guilty and ashamed
of myself. But I can't go on this way much longer. I really wish
someone would rescue me!
Do any of these sound familiar? If you've been a rescue
volunteer for any length of time, I know they do! They're some
of the innermost thoughts of overextended rescuers, rarely expressed
out loud even to each other. How do I know? Because I've been there
myself. All of those thoughts have been my own at one time or
another throughout my rescue career.
Rescue is an extremely stressful activity with a high rate of
burnout. The same applies to people who work in animal shelters.
Burnout is a common problem that eventually affects almost everyone.
It's hard to prepare new volunteers for this because their
enthusiasm blocks out the warnings of the more experienced. You can
tell them about it but it goes in one ear and out
the other. They don't understand until they've arrived there
themselves, and then they don't know how to cope with it.
Oddly, for as common as it is, burnout is seldom discussed. It's
hard to get people to talk about it. The subject makes people
uncomfortable, especially those who are suffering from it. I'm not a
psychologist but I imagine there must be reasons for this
reluctance: maybe we're afraid we'll be seen as weak, unable to
measure up to saintly expectations; maybe we think we've failed
somehow. Whatever the reason, this silence has created a gaping
chasm that many rescuers fall into, never to be seen again. Burnout
is probably the most dangerous problem that rescuers face. We need
to talk about it and help each other through it.
To cope with burnout, you have to take back control of your life! We
get into rescue to help animals in our spare time but it quickly
takes over all our time and resources, becoming the only thing in
To put rescue back in perspective:
a. Take care of yourself first. You're no good to anyone or anything
if you're tired, miserable, broke, or angry all the time. Neglecting
your own needs makes you less effective, not more. You deserve to
eat and sleep well, to be healthy, to have fun and be happy as much
as anyone else.
b. Look at your situation and compare it to where you want to be.
What are your true personal priorities in life? Make a list of them
beginning with those most important to you. Are the ones at the top
of your list getting the largest amount of your time and resources?
If not, rearrange
your time so they are.
c. What activities besides rescue do you enjoy most? Do you (or did
you) have a hobby? Make another list. Do something from that list
every day. It doesn't have to be a big thing, it can be as small as
reading a few pages of a novel or taking a walk with your dog. The
important thing is to make time every day to do something that makes
you happy. Don't put this off until you have time, make time! This
little daily break will do wonders for your attitude and well being.
d. Take at least one day a week off from rescue. Do whatever you
want or need to do on that day as long as it doesn't involve rescue.
Even shelter employees have days off and so should you!
e. Stay connected to the real world. Some volunteers get so deeply
involved with rescue, they isolate themselves and develop a very
narrow negative mindset. Read books and newspapers, visit with
non-rescue friends, go places, meet new people.
f. Set a SMART goal for yourself and do something every day toward
reaching it. A SMART goal is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, and
Realistic, and has a Timetable. An example of a SMART goal is I am
going to teach my foster dog to sit and stay on command within two
weeks. Goals like I'm going to end all pet abuse in the US or
someday I'm going to move to the country and build a sanctuary are
noble thoughts but too big and vague to keep you focused on them.
They usually produce discouragement. SMART goals automatically steer
you toward progress and achievement that provide personal
satisfaction and the enthusiasm to set and reach your next SMART
g. Keep a record of your successes and look at them often. In
rescue, the negative can seem to overwhelm the positive. Our efforts
can feel insignificant and we forget how much good we've done. Keep
a photo album of all your placements, all your happy endings, and
review them regularly, not just when you're feeling low. You'll be
amazed to see how much you have
actually accomplished. Be proud of them! They'll charge your
batteries for another go.
h. Ask for help. None of us are in this alone although many of us
seem to think we are. When you're discouraged, depressed,
overwhelmed, or just need to vent, tell somebody! We all need
support at times. When we support each other, we all feel better.
i. Evaluate your rescue activities and make adjustments that allow
you to have a life as well as a rescue program. If you've been in
rescue long enough to feel burned out, you've been in long enough to
know what you're best at, what you can afford, and how many dogs you
can care for properly. Use this information to set new priorities
and limits for your program - and then stick to them.
This last is probably the hardest for rescuers to put into practice
because it means saying sometimes. We're not very good at that, are
The emotional aspects of rescue weigh heavy on us. We're constantly
pressured to say yes. It's very very hard to say no and it's usually
attached to a guilt trip. It's amazing how many burdens we'll take
upon ourselves to avoid feeling guilty, but they'll bring you to
only one place: burnout.
You have to say no to survive for long in rescue because the animals
never stop coming and people will never stop making demands of you.
Saying no is the only thing that gives you any real control over
what happens to you in rescue. It's the most powerful thing you can
do to get your life back on track and make yourself happy and fully
effective once again.