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Dealing with HPAI-related compassion fatigue

What is avian influenza?

Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) or “bird flu” is a serious virus that has been found in Minnesota’s wild waterfowl and raptor populations in 2022. Infected wild birds have transmitted the virus to domesticated birds like chickens and turkeys. Minnesota currently (as of April 2022) has over 2 million domestic birds that have been affected by this virus. When an infected bird is detected, its flock must be killed (depopulated).

Why are occupational stress and compassion fatigue issues for farmers and people in agriculture who work with animals?

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.

What is 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.

What can you do to prevent compassion fatigue and occupational stress?

  • 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.

What should you do if you are struggling with compassion fatigue or occupational stress due to flock depopulation?

The first thing to know is that what you’re feeling is a normal response to an abnormal situation. After that, a great next step is to talk to a healthcare provider about your concerns and next steps. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture provides free resources for farmers and people living in rural areas including a helpline, rural mental health specialists, and mobile crisis teams.

Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline

Authors: Emily Becher, Abby Neu Schuft and Emily Krekelberg, Extension educators

Permission is granted to news media to republish our news articles with credit to University of Minnesota Extension. Images also may be republished; please check for specific photographer credits or limited use restrictions in the photo title.

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