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  5. Recognizing And Preventing Burnout At Your Animal Sanctuary

Recognizing And Preventing Burnout At Your Animal Sanctuary

A fire that has consumed nearly all of its wood fuel.

People who work or volunteer at nonprofits that serve vulnerable populations have a high risk of experiencing burnout, and those working at animal sanctuaries are especially prone to the condition, regardless of their position in their organization. Burnout has many causes that can be difficult to address, and its symptoms can lead to many personal and organizational challenges. However, those experiencing burnout or at risk of its effects can be helped with appropriate recognition, intervention, policies, and procedures.

What Is Burnout?

Unlike compassion fatigue, which can present itself at unexpected times after helping others through traumatic experiences, symptoms of burnout manifest as a physical and emotional reaction to prolonged, unmanaged workplace stress. If compassion fatigue primarily affects a sanctuary worker’s ability to experience empathy towards others, burnout impacts their ability to function as a team member entirely. Once someone is recognized as potentially heading towards burnout, there are likely a number of unaddressed concerning trends in their life that must be counteracted in order to help steer them onto a healing path. Unfortunately, when someone is suffering from burnout, recovery can take significantly longer than those suffering from compassion fatigue.

Is It Compassion Fatigue Or Burnout?

Very often, workers at animal sanctuaries can be suffering from both unmanaged compassion fatigue and may be at risk of burning out; both challenges can have similar causes and symptoms, especially in resident caregivers.

What Contributes To Burnout At Animal Sanctuaries?

Burnout is common in nonprofit environments due to a challenging combination of scarce resources, both financially and in terms of human power and attention, and fewer regular opportunities for de-stressing downtime. In other career fields, it can be easier for workers to pace themselves and avoid accumulating dangerous levels of stress. Running an animal sanctuary and caring for residents seven days a week means that there always has to be someone doing the work, and someone supporting the caregivers, and someone supporting volunteers, and so on. For many sanctuary employees, the compounded stress of long hours, making due with fewer resources, and a potential reluctance to take care of one’s self at the “expense” of the mission are a common recipe for burnout at animal sanctuaries.

Add in concerns about “letting down” the organization (a common trait in career nonprofit employees and volunteers) by opening up that the work is taking a difficult toll, and this recipe very frequently leads to people abandoning sanctuary work with little forewarning once they’ve reached their breaking point. If multiple sanctuary employees are suffering from chronic stress, one person quitting their position can lead to a cascade of high turnover, which can be devastating to sanctuary operations.

What Does Burnout Look Like?

Burnout can present itself differently in each individual suffering its effects, but there are some general symptoms to be on the lookout for:

Reduced Presence

When someone is heading down the road towards burnout, one of the first signs may be a sense that they’re more frequently distracted, appear “checked out” on the job, or they may be physically absent more often than they used to be. When talking to others, they may have less to say, they might seem lost in their own thoughts more often, or they might avoid human interaction altogether. Generally, this can coincide with someone accomplishing fewer tasks in the day than they typically used to.


A significant warning sign that a sanctuary worker is headed toward burnout is a sense of cynicism or comments that suggest that they feel less enthusiastic or optimistic about the organization’s mission than they used to. This can be a very reasonable reaction to frequently bearing witness to the comparatively small amount of direct impact one sanctuary has in the face of industrial animal agriculture, but if one’s mood seems only to worsen over time with few bright spots, they may be heading down a concerning path.

Do NOT Ignore The Risks

(Content Warning: Mention of self-harm and suicidality in this section. For those who wish to avoid, skip down to “Health Concerns” below.)

Sanctuary workers who cannot work to alleviate the very serious symptoms of compassion fatigue and burnout are at a much greater risk of self-harm and suicidality. Never ignore the warning signs.

If you or someone you know is having a crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741.

Health Concerns

Continuous stress can begin to cause serious physical health challenges if it goes unmanaged for a long period of time. This can translate into stomach aches and pains, pulled and sore muscles, a racing heartbeat, headaches, insomnia, fatigue, lethargy, increased susceptibility to the cold and flu, changes in eating patterns, and a general lack of ability to take care of one’s body or personal hygiene.


Sometimes people on the path towards burnout begin to take it out on those around them. Things that would not normally elicit a strong response can cause extreme annoyance or outright hostility. This could present itself as uncharacteristically foul language, sarcasm, anger, or lashing out at other sanctuary workers, the public, and unfortunately, sometimes the residents in their care.

Red Flag

If you are concerned that a sanctuary worker is beginning to feel anger at any residents, you must intervene for your residents’ sake!

What Can Be Done To Reduce The Risk Of Burnout?

Because burnout is a reaction to chronic stress, both emotional and physical, the solutions lie in beginning to reduce that stress. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, but all of them center on supporting the needs of the individual suffering from burnout. Some of these tactics can be taken on by the individual with encouragement, some burnout mitigation strategies must be implemented by sanctuary management and should be an integral part of the organization’s culture.

Talk About The Problem

Someone suffering the effects of burnout needs to be gently made aware that they could be on the path towards a breaking point. As with compassion fatigue, telling someone they may be burning out can generate feelings of denial, shame, or inadequacy in the afflicted person, so it’s very important to always treat those suffering from it with compassion and from a place of understanding. They should be made aware that burnout can affect anybody, and it is in no way a character flaw.

Because bottling up or compartmentalizing stress is a significant contributor to burnout, sanctuary workers should strive for a culture of transparency, where they can feel free to discuss their struggles with sanctuary management if things are difficult. Ideally, the risks of burnout and the signs that it may be affecting workers should be regularly discussed among staff without judgment long before it begins to cause workplace problems.

Outside of the organization, talk therapy can be instrumental in helping someone experiencing burnout begin to process their stress, especially with a licensed practitioner who is outside of the sanctuary movement.

Find A Community

It can be important for people doing difficult, very specific work like running an animal sanctuary to know that there are people out there who understand what they’re going through. One tactic to help stave off burnout can be to find other people doing similar work, either locally or online, and connect with them. Listening to the voices of the wider animal sanctuary movement can help individuals realize that they are not struggling through this work alone, and others can appreciate what they’re going through.

Set Boundaries

In order to begin the healing process from burnout, a sanctuary worker must be able to separate themself from the work. This means that they must be able to go home and not think about the organization, and sanctuary management must respect this. If someone must frequently be on-call, can they get extra time off to make up for always being “on”? It’s important for folks suffering from burnout to rediscover life outside of the sanctuary, where they can begin to take care of themselves more kindly and appreciate leisure activities and hobbies that are meaningful and rejuvenating for them. Finding enjoyment in life after someone has suffered from burnout can be a long road for many individuals, so these boundaries should be regularly encouraged by sanctuary management long before someone approaches a stress-related breaking point. Burnout can also begin to heal with a commitment to doing whatever helps the individual typically recover from stress (healthy stress relievers could include activities such as reading, walks, exercise, cooking, and meditation).

Take Time Off

There will never, ever be a perfect occasion to take time off at a sanctuary; there are always residents in need, events taking place, potential rescue opportunities, and a plethora of other time-consuming activities. That’s why it’s critical for sanctuary workers to schedule time off well in advance and actually take the time off as scheduled. Vacation, even to stay at home and not think about the sanctuary for a few days, can be critical in recovering from stress before it becomes overwhelming.

This Goes For The Top Too!

Sanctuary management (including executive directors and founders) should encourage employees and volunteers to take time off, and they should strongly consider taking time off themselves when possible; if management does not demonstrate a willingness to take care of themselves outside of the sanctuary, they may be inadvertently setting an unspoken expectation that nobody else should be taking care of themselves either.

Create Redundancy

Some sanctuary employees may feel like they can never take time off because nobody else can accomplish their critical work. Many times, there are at least aspects of the work that can be taught to a volunteer or another member of staff. This can be highly important when trying to reduce chronic stress; if someone knows that the organization won’t fall apart if they step away, that in itself can help relieve a good deal of stress. This is a good organizational practice to consider implementing long before anyone is suffering!

Focus On Priorities

In a sanctuary environment, it can be easy for everything to have a sense of urgency about it; after all, the mission is critical and the residents rely on staff every day. This urgency can cause significant stress, even for daily tasks that might not be quite as mission-critical as others. It’s important to take a step back and triage one’s workload, focusing on what needs to be accomplished soon and what can get done later on or handled by a volunteer with some training or guidance. Sanctuary leadership should be aware of the messaging of task management and whether too much is being put on the shoulders of a limited staff at once. Can the organization sit down together and develop lists of what’s important now and what can get done later?

Establish A Culture Of Gratitude

A big factor in animal sanctuary burnout can be the constant deluge of work and frequent bad news to contend with. If chronically stressed out, it can be difficult for employees to appreciate what has been going right at the sanctuary. It’s important for sanctuaries to celebrate victories big and small. Sanctuary management should ensure that employees are appreciated for their contributions, and know that their daily work is highly important. This can help folks suffering from burnout reflect upon the good that they do and the reason why they serve the animals.

Recognize Limits

So often, sanctuary workers may feel like everything is on them to manage and solve, but this is an unsustainable mindset that does not lead anywhere good. Someone struggling with burnout who may feel this way should be reminded that they are not alone! There will always be more work to be done, and it can’t all get done by one person. The animals, and the animal sanctuary movement will not be well-served by someone who doesn’t take care of themself!


The Tell Tale Signs Of Burnout | Psychology Today

How To Avoid Burnout When You’re Saving The World | The Muse

Burnout: The Monster In The Rescue Closet | National Animal Interest Alliance

How Burnout Ended My Career At The Shelter | Notes From A Dog Walker

How to Prevent Burnout | Causevox

Updated on November 12, 2020

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