The health and wellbeing of animal technicians
Concepts such as emotional loading, compassion fatigue and culture of care are today commonly used terms when one discusses the future of animal research.
At the 3Rs Center, we have noticed that it is becoming more common to talk about the welfare of the people working with animals in research. The welfare of the workers has also been linked to the welfare of the animals; humans that feel safe, calm and happy are likely to pass this forward to the animals through their care. Taking it further, it seems to have a positive effect on research results as animals are less affected by stress.
Emotional loading, compassion fatigue and culture of care
Concepts such as emotional loading, compassion fatigue and culture of care are today commonly used terms when one discusses the future of animal research. The concepts have some different meanings, but they are all linked to each other and important to pay attention to. Emotional loading is the amount of emotions a person experience. When the emotions become too many or too heavy, the person risks to suffer from compassion fatigue. However, a good culture of care might prevent this from happening. Culture of care is a workplace culture that prioritizes the wellbeing of both staff and animals and offers an open climate.
It has long been known that staff within health care do risk to suffer from compassion fatigue, a concept of burn out where the emotions become so heavy that the person is not able to care for others anymore. This was first studied in the field of trauma response as care personnel are in high risk of compassion fatigue when caring about patients that have experienced trauma of some sort. Common symptoms of compassion fatigue include anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, and feelings of helplessness e.g. It is estimated that 7‑40% of health care providers experience compassion fatigue in their work.
Amongst animal care workers compassion fatigue was first discovered in veterinarians, and for a long time their profession has been seen as the toughest when it comes to emotional loading. Between 40‑75% of active veterinarians risk experiencing compassion fatigue during their life time and they also have a heightened risk of suicide.
In a recent article, it was found that up to 95% of animal technicians experience compassion fatigue in their work, giving them the highest number measured to date.
Experiences from a Swedish context
We have asked animal technicians in our Swedish network to tell us about their work experience of emotional loading. One of them explained it like this:
"There are two main ways I experience emotional loading in my every day work as an animal technician. One is when I have to perform procedures that are painful or uncomfortable for the animals. No matter how careful we are to be gentle … the animals will always show some signs of distress ... In those moments, my instinct would normally be to release the pressure or remove the pain, but the procedure has to be done and therefore I have to do the opposite, persist with whatever I am doing that is hurting the animal … The second way I experience emotional loading, which is arguably harder to deal with, is when mistakes are made that cause the animals to suffer. I of course always do my best to reduce the animals’ suffering as much as I can, but we are human and mistakes happen. Unfortunately, in this environment, a small mistake can cause a lot of suffering to a small animal like a mouse."
Many choose the work as an animal technician due to one’s love for animals. Having to perform procedures in the way the animal technician describes above, then weighs quite heavily. In addition, animal technicians can find animals that are severely wounded due to fights or surgeries that went poorly, as well as dehydrated animals because of a water bottle that malfunctions.
Further, technicians quite often have to euthanize animals that are completely healthy due to a surplus and one has almost no time to process one’s emotions because of a high work load.
“I thought it was just me”
A common outcome of emotional loading is the feeling that one is alone with these feelings and thoughts, and that one needs to get oneself together. The phrase “I thought it was just me” is actually a response we got from several participants in a workshop about emotional loading that we had with Swedish animal technicians earlier this year.