Sunday, April 19, 2009

Guarding Against Burnout

Observation: The Shelter receives an endless parade of abandoned, unwanted, surrendered, forgotten, left-over dogs.

I place one in foster here, adopt-to-foster another, see the finalization of the adoption of a third dog, and take another foster home. Four, eight, 10, 25, 32 dogs—maybe a few more—so far this year have come into my advocacy as a volunteer for my county Animal Shelter. I have lost one foster dog to distemper (Queeny, a heeler mix who I nursed for more than a week), returned one foster back to the Shelter (Darla, who bit my own dog) and have seen at least three of my “adoptions” return to the Shelter.

What am I doing wrong? That’s the question that arises—and it is one of the first symptoms of burnout.

For the past two weekends, I’ve not done Off-Site Adoptions, and my team leader coordinator is frustrated with me. Last week, I wanted to celebrate my daughter’s 15th birthday on April 11th, and I had church obligations Friday and Sunday. Plus I had an emergency vet visit.

Yesterday, we had our second day of extremely wet weather—we recorded more than five inches of rain at our house between Friday and Saturday. Many of our Off-Sites were cancelled due to the weather. I could have helped or led one, but didn’t.

This morning, I declined to run an Off-Site because of church obligations. My church services let out at 12:15 p.m. By the time I come home, change and get to the Shelter it is after 1:00 p.m. Getting animals and getting to the local PetsMart can take up to an hour. If I don’t pack up and leave the PetsMart by 3:00 p.m., the Shelter staff leaves before I arrive back at the Shelter. Unloading animals and finishing paperwork takes at least 30 to 45 minutes, and generally consumes an hour. By now it is 4:45 p.m. I’m exhausted, the dogs have missed the feeding time, and in the brief time I was at the PetsMart, I may not have completed any adoptions.

Frustration builds. This is another symptom of burnout.

It was not easy to tell my Team Leader I will not be volunteering Off-Site today. She is frustrated, too. She sees PetsMart locations without our presence. She sees dogs that languish in the Adoption Room. She tries to be five places at once. I don’t want to see her burnout. But the danger is there.

I want to volunteer. I will continue to volunteer. However, I can’t do it around the clock, every weekend. I don’t like to haul six dogs to a PetsMart and do all the set-up and take-down by myself. And on the days there are no adoptions, it is depressing. No matter how many hours we invest, the dogs keep coming into the Shelter.

Our volunteers are awesome and dedicated beyond belief. However, when we crash in burnout, it hurts us and our families. And it hurts the dogs. Succumbing to guilt when we can’t staff every event does nothing to help to the dogs. There will always be more dogs. We have to focus our energy, and pace ourselves for the long haul.

How do you guard against burnout? What works with your group? Please leave me your thoughts.


  1. First of all, your team Leader is not frustrated with you. He/she is frustrated with the amount of never ending work and the same things which frustrate all of us.

    I manage a totally volunteer-operated food bank and emergency service organization. The work load is growing and the amount of help does not grow accordingly. I was not a happy camper last week due to the same frustrations and I spent so much time apologising to the volunteers for being such a crank!!!

    Anyone who does community service, or is an organizer and/or volunteer for any organization faces the danger of burn-out. There are far too many things/animals/family/events that need our attention, not enough hands/bodies/hours in the day to cover it all.

    My hard learned mantra, actually I have several, but first and foremost is "I can't take care of anyone or anything else if I don't take care of myself.

    Next, God, family, community

    Another, "...and this too shall pass"

    my newest, because I am right where you are,” I am alive, I believe in everything"

    Believe in yourself, in what you are doing, know how much you can do and do only that. Take time for spirit, family and yourself. That is what will keep us doing what needs done.

    Aside from that, I think you are doing amazing things with your life!!!

  2. I agree with the comments of GSC.

    One thing I have found is you need to vary what volunteer things you do. See if you can trade volunteer "jobs" with another person? Even if you do it for only a month, it gives you a break.

    Something else is you MUST make time for yourself in your schedule. Why not start a new class with one of your own animals and spend time with them? Or perhaps a class for yourself - yoga, running, bridge, cribbage ... whatever. Provided it is something you enjoy and love and you do it for you.

    If you don't make time for yourself than you will burnout. Period.

    Don't look at the big picture because you will be overwhelmed. Look at one or two successful adoptions ... why not contact some of the people you adopted to and see if you could get together with them for a follow-up visit to see how they are doing? Maybe they could write you a letter with a picture or even a story you could publish in a newsletter?

    Something. Anything. The other thing is that your organization needs to recognize and appreciate their volunteers. It's very important.

    That's my 2 cents. I have more, but this is a good start. Also, look up "Compassion Fatigue". You may find it rings a bell


  3. Thanks all, for the comments!

    DDF: I'm doing okay with my own anti-burnout plan--I have hobbies and other interests! My real area of concern is with my Off-Site Team Leader.

    She is going non-stop, running on zeal. The concern we've expressed has done little to slow her down. She spends the bulk of her time organizing, processing and man-handling the schedules, kennel packets, adoption forms, dog crates, folding tables, transport, loading and unloading of animals.

    She gets frustrated when we tell her we don't want to be unloading animals alone at the Shelter after dark. I've been at the Shelter with her as late as 10:30 p.m. There is nothing scarier than a room full of dogs barking in an unmanned shelter.

    Her goal is to operate as many Off-Site events as possible at all times. She'd like us to be at PetsMart during the week if she could convince people to do it.

    However, this quantity-over-quality approach often leaves us running events only one volunteer. That's right: One adult to handle anything between three to eight dogs. Two adult volunteers if you're lucky. Sometimes we have kids to help, but that has drawbacks.

    This is the biggest issue I have with our current system. With the pressure to man Off-Site events at all costs, we're discouraging our volunteers. I don't mind hard work, but when I volunteer, I want it to be fun--there's enough fun-sucking stuff that happens in animal rescue work anyway.

    Thanks again for the comments!

  4. The sad thing is that you cannot change your team leader. She will have to learn for herself. You can offer suggestions, but then you have to step back to let her find her own way.
    DDF--I am going to go look up compassion fatigue as it sounds interesting.

  5. Awesome comments. I just found you through the "dog farm" and do fostering too.

    Pesonally I find that we need to take a break sometimes. It is so hard to say no when I know I have room for a dog but when I start to get too overcommited I take a break for a few weeks. Our latest group of puppies was adopted out about a month ago ad I'll take in a new dog on Thursday.

    Feel free to drop by my blog anytime. Ill be back to visit yours.


Please leave a pawprint! I appreciate comments.