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ShelterSpeak: Motivating Staff and Preventing Burnout

ShelterSpeak: How do you motivate your staff and prevent burnout? What strategies and resources do you use to help ensure their mental health and to prepare them for the daily stresses of animal protection work?

ShelterSpeak: How do you motivate your staff and prevent burnout? What strategies and resources do you use to help ensure their mental health and to prepare them for the daily stresses of animal protection work?

Deanna Groves
Human Resources Manager
Dumb Friends League
Denver, Colorado

The Dumb Friends League uses a variety of employee recognition programs to keep staff motivated. We have a program called Pawsitively Great that is a staff favorite. First, we designed and printed simple “kudos” cards with animal themes, including “Ears to You!” and “We’re PAW-roud of you!” A light-to-medium cardstock works best.

Next, we introduced the cards to managers and supervisors, challenging each manager to write out three to five cards each week. We thank staff for going above and beyond the call of duty or for giving special attention to a patron or coworker. Each time a card is given, the person giving the card writes a short note detailing the extra effort. This minimal investment of time has proven to be an invaluable motivational tool.

Almost as soon as we rolled out the program, staff asked to hand out the cards to each other as well. Even better, we thought, to encourage positive employee relations and improve our internal “people care.” Now anyone can give a card to any other staff person, and occasionally even volunteers get in on the action!

Employees turn in the cards for a drawing each month. The prizes don’t have to be expensive, and often retailers willingly donate gift certificates. Some employee favorites: gift certificates to local restaurants, discount retailers, grocery or video stores, and free movie tickets (bought in bulk at $5.50 each). Once a month, we draw four to five cards and announce the winners. Employees are quick to collect their prizes and appreciate having a choice.

One great twist we weren’t expecting when we implemented this program is that several employees never turn in their cards for the drawing. Instead, they keep them, preferring to have the “thanks” rather than a chance at a prize.

After each drawing, we punch holes in the cards to indicate they have already been eligible for a prize drawing, and return the cards to the employee. Many staff members keep the cards indefinitely; some decorate their workspace with them, and others pull them out for a boost on a bad day. We also publish the number of cards turned in each month (for example, 50 cards turned in by 38 different employees), which is a reminder to everyone to keep “catching people doing things right.”

We also sometimes do on-the-spot rewards of gift certificates to restaurants or movies and have an employee-of-the-month program as well as length-of-service awards (at five-year increments). We do a holiday party every year and give gift certificates to a local grocery store to all employees; the amount is based on length of service. We do appreciation picnics from May through October, and each month we have birthday cake. Food is always a good motivator, so sometimes department managers will buy pizza or ice cream for their staff if they’re having a particularly busy week.

Are your organization’s staff looking a wee bit flustered? These ideas should help you create a more comfortable, happier work environment.
To prevent burnout, we try to be selective with who we hire in the first place. We measure general stress tolerance through our online application process and will be extending that to other applicants as well in the next year. During the interview, we are very frank about euthanasia, and we simply don’t hire people who really have an issue with it. We provide extensive on-the-job and classroom training, as we believe that employees who understand what is expected are less likely to become burned out. We offer cross-training in other departments and do a lot of promoting/transferring from within. We also send people on a “shelter safari” to visit local shelters to see what other animal welfare organizations are like.

More formally, we have a voluntary “caregivers group” that meets monthly to discuss stress management techniques, euthanasia concerns, compassion fatigue, and the like. We also offer an employee assistance program (EAP) as a benefit and use their services for critical incidences as needed. One-on-one conversations with staff and HR or their manager are not uncommon if we feel that an employee’s stress level is exceeding his ability to cope. Reminding employees about the EAP or offering a schedule/position change (if appropriate) can usually help.

Nicky Ratliff
Executive Director
Humane Society of Carroll County
Westminster, Maryland

Due to the fact that I seem to have been blessed with long-term staff, I have often been asked about how to help cope with burnout. At one time we had a total of 12 full-time employees—three with 20 years on the job, two with 17 years, one with 14 years, one with 12 years, one with 6 years, three with 2 years, and a new position hire.

I employ “adults” who I feel certain will be able to successfully handle the job at hand. I provide them with good training both in house and out. I don’t micromanage and I try not to get overly involved with their day-today activities. They are well aware of how I want them to address their duties and of the expected end results. I treat them the way my favorite boss treated me.

They know that they will have job security so long as they do what’s expected of them. I give them the tools and training they need to excel, and I expect them to fulfill my expectations of them and be the very best they can be. People in general rise to meet expectations.

I encourage humor in the workplace, and if their work is complete I allow them to interact much as firemen do when not responding to a fire or cleaning their trucks or firehouses. Interaction can be anything from discussing work-related topics to discussing their families, friends, or vacation plans. I make their workplace as comfortable and as attractive as possible and I make sure the animal control officers have all the training and equipment they would need for any imaginable call they would be expected to respond to.

While we all could probably use more staff at times, I make sure our staffing is appropriate so as not to overwork the employees. I remember that while they certainly do care about the animals they protect, they are not volunteers—I don’t expect them to work overtime without compensation. Even with compensation, there is and should be a limit to the amount of time a person is expected to be “on the job.” I may not be able to pay them top dollar, but they have a vacation and sick package that is above average for a small company. So long as you can make a decent wage, money is not—in my opinion—what keeps staff. Appreciation, good working conditions, pleasant environment, time off, and good benefits are worth much more. If you have budgetary limitations—and we all do—be creative.

Additionally I tell my staff that while I don’t want to lose them, I would never stand in the way of their progress. If they find a job elsewhere and it will benefit them or their families, I tell them,“Don’t let me be the last one to know you’re interviewing.” If my employee has had a quality performance record and been dependable and conscientious, I want to be the first reference on their resume and I will do everything humanly possible to help them get the job they are applying for. So there you have what I think keeps my staff on the job, protecting animals, serving the public, and ultimately making me and our organization look good.

Jane McCall
Executive Director
Dubuque Humane Society
Dubuque, Iowa

I think keeping your staff and yourself motivated is one of the hardest things to do. If I see that someone is getting really burned out, I will usually begin by talking to them, finding out what the “real” problem is and if it is work-related. I have given some of my full-time staff a day off so they can have a break from the action. I will put notes or cards in their paychecks, telling them they are doing a great job. If I hear from someone in the community about how good the shelter looks or some other compliment I try really hard to remember to pass it on. I try to be upbeat most of the time; I think in a small shelter, the staff sometimes picks up the mood of the other staff members. If someone is being really negative I will try to talk to them about what it is that’s bothering them and we try to work it out. We recognize birthdays and holidays with treats and try to have a couple of parties during the year.

Laura Maloney
Executive Director
Louisiana SPCA
New Orleans, Louisiana

The LA/SPCA is just starting to address the burnout and stress issue in a formal manner. Beginning in January, we will offer the Shelter Partners EAP, which is specifically designed to assist shelter employees with compassion fatigue and other stresses associated with working at a shelter.

Currently, we are wrestling with methods for recognizing good performance immediately. On the table is the Top Dog Reward Program, in which any manager can reward any employee from any department for excellence in customer service. The employee can save his or her rewards (tokens, in this case) and cash them in for a day off, free dinner, etc. This program is in the final stages of development.

We installed a “Wags & Brags” bulletin board where employees can post notes about a job well done. Our board is nearly full! It’s the first place I go when I want to share a letter from the public about the good work of an employee.

Employees from every department are involved in developing our strategic plan. The response has been incredible. Employees raise their concerns and assist in developing possible solutions through planning.

Naturally, we celebrate any possible thing we can with food. It’s the New Orleans way! There are many laughs shared around the kitchen table. We also give free tickets to concerts and other activities around the city. Otherwise, we rely on one-on-one discussions and keep an open-door policy.

Don Jordan
Executive Director
Seattle Animal Control
Seattle, Washington

I think we all know that the words “thank you” aren’t said often enough in the workplace. At the Seattle Animal Shelter, we have monthly potlucks to recognize birthdays, milestones, and other celebratory events.

I throw pizza parties for the staff periodically and we have an “employee of the quarter” who gets a privileged parking spot close to the building.

In terms of dealing with burnout, here are some of our general rules: Encourage people to take time off to recharge their batteries. Even if staffing shortages preclude someone from taking time off because they are worried about the impact on their coworkers, I will authorize overtime so other folks can pitch in and allow someone to take vacation. It can be a morale builder and a win-win because you allow someone to get the needed rest, and you provide an opportunity for others to make some additional money.

Put round people in round holes—meaning, put people in positions where they are a natural fit. Find out what their passions and expertise are. Sometimes people need a change in scenery, responsibilities, challenges, etc., so they can get a new perspective on their career and what they were hired to do.

Empower people to take charge. Stand by them at all times, and create a climate where even the worst screw-up may be redeemable. If people feel more secure, they are usually willing to take more risks and have a positive attitude in their job.

Create a climate of trust. Internal bickering does nothing for the bottom line and no one has to be a loser. Make your crew think “we can do anything.” Giving people freedom also creates discipline. Free people have a powerful incentive not to screw up.

Create an environment where staff lead by example. Remind them they should never forget the effect that they have on other people, including coworkers. Remind them that leading also brings accountability.

Bet on people who think for themselves. Demonstrate to your staff that you embrace new ideas and you will take a chance on a promising employee. An empowered staff is a happy staff.

Allison Miller
Adoption Supervisor
Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control
Fort Wayne, Indiana

One biggie in trying to prevent burnout is encouraging true teamwork among the staff. We try to teach the staff to have respect for each other’s jobs so that they aren’t critical of each other. Of course, there are always a few peas in the pod that don’t follow this lead!

But even lately, there are animal control supervisors who have been helping out behind the counter in animal receiving or answering phones when things are really crazy. They understand the stresses that their coworkers have and oftentimes are willing to jump in and be a partner to them.

Also, as supervisors, we get in and do the dirty work, too. We do euthanasia just like the staff, we clean kennels just like the staff, we work with customers just like the staff. We don’t just sit behind our desks and delegate—we want to help our staff and want to take care of the animals, too. So I think it is important for them to realize (for their morale) that we want to help our people—not just have them do work for us.

I think that giving the supervisors and adoption staff an opportunity to evaluate animals and give their feedback on behavior, temperament, medical issues—this makes them feel so worthy! Like they are really making a difference. Constantly giving them the opportunity to learn new things and be educated (key: giving them the opportunity and not forcing it on them). When they feel enabled, we get a much better work ethic. They need to feel that they have ownership in this place, like somehow it is partially theirs.

Ideas: Take adoption animals into the front office so that the people up there can feel the love, too! Play small practical jokes as supervisors—not all supervisors are humorless! Share upcoming events and cool things with all of the staff, not just the staff directly involved. Pass out candy every once in a while (who doesn’t love candy?).

Share uplifting adoption stories with everyone. Every once in a while (or each time), announce it over the loud speaker that “Barney the Beagle was just adopted! He found his forever home!”

Christie Smith
Executive Director
Potter League for Animals
Newport, Rhode Island

The importance of this question cannot be minimized. There are so many aspects of shelter management and administration, and none of it can be successful without great staff and teamwork. And because I often feel that this is an area that I don’t handle well, I asked several other executive directors about their strategies for motivating staff.

Involving staff in planning and encouraging them to be part of the solution is a critical component of building teams. The problem is that all ideas cannot be used by the organization. There may be 40 good ideas offered in order to bring one to fruition. Ideas and solutions build on each other, but the process can be frustrating for all staff if they feel their own idea is ignored or not heard. The final decisions always have to be grounded in what is in the best interest of the agency. I hope that shelter staff can say, “Here’s my idea, it might not make it to the top of the list today, but maybe my next one will.”

Everyone needs a voice and chance to be heard. This is part of group dynamics and empowerment that can be helpful for all of us. Everyone wants to feel they have some say in the culture and workings of the shelter.

Another tip for handling the daily stresses of our work is to not let things mushroom. Small issues or different views can quickly become big problems. Triangulating is the process whereby A, who has a problem with B, brings her problem to C rather than to her direct supervisor. B brings his problem to D, who is not his supervisor. Before long every person in the shelter has a mutated version of the problem and a relatively simple difference of opinion has become an organization-wide set of alliances with a cast of villains and martyrs. This indirect communication can be very divisive in an organization. Healthy communication skills throughout the organization are critical.

Life issues and personal crises usually cannot be resolved in the workplace. While supervisors or coworkers may be supportive, the best we can sometimes offer is an understanding that problems outside the workplace exist. It is helpful to offer resources such as Employee Assistance Plans or recommendations for professional counseling when necessary. Programs that support the post-traumatic stress of euthanasia and demands of animal care should be considered. Customer service training to develop an attitude that our customers are part of the solution, not just the cause of all of our problems, will help.

Other ideas may include: Personalize recognition. Listen and listen and listen some more. Show sensitivity to others. Provide choices. Seize every opportunity to teach. Provide the chance to go to training programs. Throw parties, for any reason imaginable. Have picnic lunches or ice cream sundaes in the middle of the day. Organize volleyball teams or yoga classes. Inject humor. Hang festive holiday decorations. Hold silly contests and all-staff meetings. Celebrate small wins and celebrate together.


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