rescue. reunite. rehome. rethink.
  • Share to Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Email
  • Print

What Helps People Cope?

Study investigates the ups and downs of euthanasia work

Study investigates the ups and downs of euthanasia work

It sounds like a prescription for building high morale in any workplace: hire carefully, provide ample training, establish social support networks, and offer opportunities to participate in positive, life-affirming programs.

In the field of animal sheltering, the existence of such elements may mean the difference between employees who thrive and those who are unable to cope with the stresses of euthanasia, suggest the authors of a new study soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science.

In examining the occurrence and effects of events that change the attitudes of shelter employees who perform euthanasia, university researchers found that first-time euthanasia and difficult euthanasia were significant negative “turning points” for many people. But they also identified positive turning points, including the opportunity to receive training or the decision by supervisors to have staff share the burden of performing euthanasia.

Researchers found that improvement of euthanasia procedures in the shelter had positively affected many of the workers interviewed for the study.
Subjects of the study included dozens of attendees at Animal Care Expo 2002. While the goal of “ending euthanasia in our lifetime” is such a hot topic that it was the focus of a daylong workshop at that conference, the researchers had a more focused and tangible goal in mind when they conducted interviews of 38 Expo-goers: to learn more about how performing euthanasia affected their well-being.

Although the length of interviewees’ careers varied greatly, on average they had worked in animal care for about 11 years and had been involved with euthanasia for nine years. The data for three of these 38 attendees was discounted because they had been involved with euthanasia for less than two years.

Interviewees discussed their adjustment to euthanasia chronologically. To illustrate what they were about to talk about, the interviewees were asked to draw a graph that represented their adjustment to euthanasia work, which would show positive and negative events and their consequences as time passed.

Almost half of the graphs showed a positive trend overall, and just five percent demonstrated the opposite. The authors recognize that this correlated with the fact that the group contained people who had stayed in their jobs for two years or more (although they point out that some people may remain in such a job for the sake of the animals, even when experiencing poor adjustment). About a third of the graphs were inconsistent in overall trends, although they appeared quite different from one another, leading the authors to believe that adjustment takes many different forms among shelter workers.

“Turning points” were significant, specific events that directly resulted in a change in “attitudes, stress, or well-being.”

Researchers pinpointed 83 of them, grouping them according to themes and then examining how common those themes were. While two significant negative turning points were the first euthanasia completed and difficult instances of euthanasia, these types of events could eventually lead to positive changes, the authors wrote—an example provided is of a woman who was badly bitten by a dog during an attempt at euthanasia. Subsequent euthanasia at the shelter was improved as a result, and muzzles were made available when needed.

Other negative turning points included arrivals of great numbers of animals, as in hoarding cases, and overcrowding that resulted in healthy animals being euthanized. Positive turning points included training opportunities, reduced participation in work related to euthanasia, and improvement of euthanasia itself, as well as one type of turning point that could be either positive or negative: management-related events (for example, a decision by a supervisor to have staff members alternate performing euthanasia, or the criticism of an employee in front of other workers). Turning points also included events that helped individuals cope better with their jobs, such as beginning a therapy program.

The authors, who included Charlie L. Reeve, Christiane Spitzmüller, Steven G. Rogelberg, Alan Walker, Lisa Schultz, and Olga Clark, identified several infrastructure-related and programmatic issues, such as “job design,” which includes employee work schedules as well as euthanasia methods. Other factors include shelter capacity, adoption programs, stress management instruction, and the like. This list of issues reveals that many factors not directly related to euthanasia can affect employees’ adjustment to euthanasia itself, the authors wrote.

Based on information revealed in the interviews, the authors provide a number of recommendations. They suggest that new employees should be recruited carefully and should be given a proper introduction to their jobs before beginning work. After employees have been hired, training opportunities should be available—not only for the technical side of euthanasia, but for general preparedness as well.

In addition, the authors advise that taking action to reduce euthanasia, like implementing spay/neuter assistance programs, contributes to improving the well-being of those who participate in euthanasia. They found that such a program, no matter what the effectiveness, can offer a means to help staff cope—and that helping with adoption outreach and other non-euthanasia-related shelter work can have a positive effect on attitudes.

Other suggestions include giving an employee a break from euthanasia after something particularly stressful occurs and helping new employees find a support network. Not only will employees reap the benefits when such suggestions are put into place, the authors wrote, but the animals will likely do better, too.


Powered by Blackbaud
nonprofit software