Dealing with HPAI-related compassion fatigue

University of Minnesota Extension offers tips for farmers, workers
calendar icon 9 May 2022
clock icon 3 minute read

University of Minnesota Extension published a recent article to help poultry farmers who may be dealing with compassion fatigue due to the recent outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI).

A growing body of research shows that people who work with animals in a professional role can experience high levels of occupational stress. This is particularly true when they work in roles where animals must be killed outside of the regular course of their lifespan. Supervisors and farmers with staff experiencing higher levels of occupational stress may experience compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue (or compassion stress) can occur when, for example, a supervisor is managing employees who are experiencing high levels of stress due to flock depopulation. The supervisor may feel compassion fatigue.

Over time, unaddressed occupational stress and compassion fatigue can look like:

  • A loss of compassion or empathy
  • Unexplained or unexpected ongoing negative feelings like anger, detachment, and depression
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach issues, and trouble sleeping
  • Performing poorly at work
  • Increased use of alcohol and other substances
  • Conflict in close relationships or isolating yourself from loved ones

The extension article also outlined tips for preventing compassion fatigue and occupation stress. The tips include the following:

  • Be clear: When communicating with staff about the decision to depopulate, it is important that workers understand why this decision is necessary and that the reasons for it are clearly communicated.
  • Create an open environment where people are free to express themselves and have an opportunity to talk to others about their feelings.
    • Check-in regularly with staff about how they are doing. Listen closely when staff members share their thoughts and experiences.
    • Encourage people in leadership roles to talk about their personal experiences.
    • Try to show staff that they are cared about as people above and beyond their roles as employees.
  • Normalize: Occupational stress due to depopulation is a real phenomenon experienced by many people who work with animals, and it is a normal reaction given the circumstances.
  • Address the stigma: Many people may feel they have no one they can safely talk to. Make sure that people responsible for depopulating animals have others they can talk to safely who understand.
  • Ensure people are trained and feel comfortable in their skills: When people have adequate training in the skills they need to do their jobs, they are protected against compassion fatigue and occupational stress. This can include providing additional training on topics like compassion fatigue and agriculture-related occupational stress.
  • Take care of yourself: People who live healthy lifestyles are at reduced risk of compassion fatigue and occupational stress. It is also important to pay attention to the balance of resources and demands you and your staff are experiencing. This can include making sure staff get enough breaks at work, have enough time off, and have an appropriate balance of responsibilities at work.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture urges producers and farm workers to make use of available resources, including helplines, rural mental health specialists, and mobile crisis teams.

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