compassion fatigue

I have friends who work deep in the trenches of animal rescue groups. They rescue pit bulls from fighting rings. They rehome unwanted cats and move them to barns in the countryside. They save bunnies and chinchillas from the most disgusting and repugnant breeding facilities. Several of them suffer from compassion fatigue, but many do not.

What’s the secret? Well, it’s not a secret. They’ve established boundaries but also demonstrate flexibility in the face of great need and limited resources.

Meanwhile, I know a lot of people in HR and recruiting who are burned out. They work in cushy corporate offices, but they work sixty hours a week and are emotionally and physically fried.

Compassion fatigue is real. I’m not surprised by the empty and sad HR business partners and recruiters in my life. When you deal with the disempowered underbelly of humanity, as many do, you can quickly find yourself jaded and exhausted.

But let’s not just look at the regular folks in the trenches. Even HR executives find themselves wondering how so many people with such high capabilities can be so needy.

Want to beat compassion fatigue in HR and recruiting? Here are some tips that I’ve learned from my friends who have seen it all and lived to tell stories.

Be the Boss of Your Calendar

Volunteers have limited capacity to give, which makes them more efficient with their time. If you have two hours each Saturday to show up at a Petco and move your foster kittens into forever homes, you safeguard your schedule and make the most of your time on the ground. The good news is that calendar management is one of the easiest ways to reclaim your sanity. The bad news is that many corporate professionals aren’t brave enough to say no to chit-chat, office drive-bys, and last-minute requests from people who ought to know better. But if you don’t value your time, who will?

Admit Defeat and Embrace Failure

If you work with cats and dogs, you know your job is never done. To prevent compassion fatigue, it’s good to keep your expectations low because the best you can hope for is an incremental change in your local community. People will still chain dogs to a tree. People will still breed cats and then throw the unsold kittens onto highways. When the challenge is immense and your capacity is limited, celebrate the small victories. You’re not going to fix the wage gap in America; however, you can have quiet and deliberate conversations about pay equity in your company that drive to something greater.

Walk Away

Many of us in the animal rescue community have dealt with Founder’s Syndrome. That’s when someone starts an animal rescue but won’t let go of daily operations. Volunteers must manage the founder’s ego while trying to tackle systemic problems such as animal abuse and overpopulation. Here’s what I’ve learned: Walk away. It’s not my job as a volunteer or a human resources leader to make someone feel good about themselves just because they got the whole thing rolling. It’s not what you started. It’s how you contribute to its growth and sustainability. When equity and power are involved, sometimes the best thing you can do as an HR minion is walk away.

If you work in HR and feel burned out, I have one other piece of advice for you: do your job with integrity, but offer 22% less of yourself. Apply that energy to something that brings you joy. And, let’s be honest, nobody will notice your 22% reduction in effort.

Hey! If you’re looking for a place where you can restore your sanity and spend 22% of your time feeling good about life, I know a few animal rescues that would love to have you.


  1. I never heard the term “Founder’s Syndrome” before but I know exactly what you are talking about, both in rescue groups and in employment settings. I have worked with many different rescue groups in the past 8 years or so and boy, can that be a problem. Some rescue owners can become the equivalent of hoarders (almost) by not letting their volunteers take on some of the tasks needed to get those animals good homes. Yes the animals are off the streets and safe and fed, but hey, they could use a home of their own, with a person or family that dotes just on them. I have also seen this happen in some of my jobs. It’s scary for everyone involved because it’s limiting in so many ways. I have suffered compassion burnout in both of these areas but I also have learned to do what you suggest, for the rescue world, and celebrate the small wins. It still doesn’t mean things that happen in the rescue world won’t get to you at one time or another though. You wouldn’t be human if it didn’t. And in the job world, well, that’s a different story. I had to adopt a “let it go” attitude. Do your job right and be competent but don’t let the small things get to you. That’s the hard part.

  2. I’ve been volunteering at the animal shelter in my town for about a month. It is about the little successes. The last time I was there one of the cats who had been there since December went home with their new friend. So exciting!

    This last year or two, I’ve taken a hard look at what I do besides my job to connect me with others and the things I love. I’ll give anything a college try, but if it doesn’t feed my soul after a few months, I’m out. We only have so much time and it should count!


  3. I am going to REALLY try to give less of myself — maybe not 22% at first. But I love this idea.

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