Learn to Soar- Dealing with Burnout in the Animal Care Industry

Vultures are birds of prey that have several unique and recognizable characteristics including feeding on carrion and their trademark “bald” heads, but one of their most recognizable characteristics is their flight patterns. In Ontario, Canada, where I live, it is extremely common to drive by a farmer’s field in the summer and see several vultures flying high above the field for hours on end without moving their wings, seemingly floating in a physics-defying display of weightlessness. This type of flight is called “soaring” and it is done through the use of air thermals that send a column of warm air upwards as the ground is heated by the sun. Vultures and other birds of prey have evolved to use these thermals to soar through the air for hours at a time without flapping their wings, as the act of traditional flight is a massive energy drain. But the act of soaring effectively takes precision and practice, researchers have found that older vultures are often significantly more efficient at soaring than younger birds (Harel et al, 2016). 

The flight pattern of an adult Griffon Vulture

It’s no secret that worker burnout has been on the rise in the last few years. An Indeed.com study conducted in 2022, found that over half of respondents experienced burnout that year which is over ten percent higher than the year before (Kelly, 2022). Anctotely I have noticed the rise of burnout in my friends, family, coworkers, and even myself. I was prompted to write this article as it seems every time I go on social media the zookeeper groups I follow seem to be full of posts talking about burnout and compassion fatigue. It makes sense that if compassion fatigue and burnout are on the rise in the workforce, empathy and compassion-driven industries such as animal care should be affected by this the hardest. We are empathetic people that care deeply about the animals we work with and can’t just punch out at the end of the day and forget about them. Our actions and mental state also have a direct impact on their lives, poor choices and decision-making on our part can have negative effects on their welfare, which can be very stressful at times. I usually write articles on animal welfare and enrichment, but as I have just explained, animal welfare is wholly intertwined with human welfare, more content workers will equal more content animals.

I think that a certain level of burnout and stress is just part of caring about your job, caring about the welfare of the animals you work with and caring about your performance as a professional in the field. I can say that my levels of contentment and stress are not just continuous and moving in a straight line year after year. Things happen at work and outside of work that make these levels swing wildly up and down, and I think that’s just life. How you deal with this fluctuation in contentment, stress and other feelings around burnout are what is going to make or break your career, you can either become jaded and truly burned out or you can be someone who has a long, happy, and successful career in animal care. You have to learn to soar like a vulture instead of constantly flapping your wings trying to get through the day, but as we discovered earlier, learning to soar is a process and one that takes practice and reflection. 

I’m sure everyone reading this can think of a time in their career when they were riding one of those thermals, being propelled upwards in an effortless glide surrounded by other passionate people riding with you. As I’m sure you know, these thermals don’t last forever and you have to flap your wings eventually, but instead of just thinking of how great that other thermal feels and how tired you are flapping your wings, think about flapping your wings as a way to get to another thermal. Too often people look at their career as a whole and think about the years and years ahead of them and the years and years behind them, and when you are in a bad headspace or dealing with a persistent problem in the workplace, this can lead down a spiral of discontentment and frustration. I prefer to divide my work life into projects as opposed to one overarching job. I have found the high points in my career to be when I’m working on a particular project that I am very passionate about, whether this means a training project, conservation project, or enrichment project, as long as you are passionate about it, it becomes very easy to focus on that project and tune out the aspects of the job that might be causing you frustration and even burnout. 

Me learning about walrus training, definitely a moment of “soaring”
Working outside in -45C, not soaring at all. Flapping wings hard.

As animal care professionals, we need to become very good at assessing an animal’s welfare, but quite often, we are completely oblivious to our own. For instance, when we see an animal exhibiting a stereotypic behaviour we immediately take steps to mitigate that behaviour and look into potential causes and solutions, but when we exhibit behaviours that serve no purpose and are detrimental to our mental health, we often don’t acknowledge their existence. For instance, constant complaining, gossip and negative comments serve absolutely no purpose, and are extremely detrimental to not just your mental health, but also your whole team’s and can create a very toxic work environment. Look at how you are behaving, how you are speaking and how you are carrying out your work and try to mitigate and change some of those negative behaviours that are not serving any purpose. 

One of the biggest sources of burnout in this industry as well as many other industries is the cohesiveness and effectiveness of the small team you work with day in and day out. Effective teamwork is a much larger and much more complicated topic that people much more qualified than I have written entire books on, so I would recommend reading those books, but I will briefly touch on what I think is important for success in our small animal care teams. The first thing we have already talked about; is stopping those negative behaviours that are serving no purpose and are bringing your team down. Stop counting down the hours till your shift is over, stop railing against management and the company you work for, stop gossiping behind people’s back, and stop being passive-aggressive. I’m a firm believer that there is no such thing as bad teams, only bad leaders (Gleason, 2022). Even if you are not in a leadership position, lead up the chain of command and be the zookeeper that everyone wants to be, be understanding, driven, coachable, and take initiative and responsibility for your own actions. In a small team like the ones we work in, this can be extremely worthwhile for your team and completely transform it in a short period of time. At the same time, do not shoulder the entire responsibility for your team’s weak performance, know when to take a step back and focus on a solitary project for a while to avoid burning out. In his book, Joy on Demand, Chade-Meng Tan presents a short exercise to “access joy” that I have found very useful for team environments. This exercise is called “ten seconds of loving-kindness” and essentially what you do is pick two of your team members and think to yourself “I wish for this person and that person to be happy” that is it. Really try to mean this, and if you can, set them up for success that day the best you can. I have found that if everyone on the team wants to see their team members succeed and be happy, the team will function much better and there will be fewer opportunities for burnout. 

One of the tools we use in evaluating animal welfare is an activity budget, which is essentially evaluating their daily schedule to see where and how they are spending their time on a given day. This same exercise should be applied to your own daily routine. If you look at your own routine and all you do is work and think about work and then sleep, you need to try and change that, the same way you would try to increase foraging time and enrichment interaction time in an animal’s life. Hobbies and fun activities outside of work are crucial to getting your mind off of work and onto things that aren’t going to burn you out. I have found hobbies that are completely self-serving and are in no way “productive” to be especially useful in staving off burnout. Video games and various forms of exercise are my go-to activities to avoid burnout, find what works for you and make time for yourself whenever you can. 

All of these things that we touched on in this article come together to build a system of resilience to both prevent burnout but also deal with it when it eventually happens. Changing your habits, how you work with your team and eliminating negative behaviour, are all beneficial practices that can have a pronounced effect on your burnout resilience. The less you burn out and the quicker you recover from that burnout, the happier and more productive your career will be, which will ultimately have a direct impact on the animals you work with. All of this comes together to help you be like the vulture, find those thermals, learn to soar and carrion….. I mean carry on. 

Disclaimer: I am a zookeeper, not a therapist, nor am I qualified to talk about mental health in the workplace, this article should not be taken as professional advice. This article documents what works for me to avoid burnout in the workplace. If you are struggling with your mental health, seek the appropriate help.


References

A Closer Look at How Vultures Lazily Circle in the Air. (2017, October 17). Audubon. https://www.audubon.org/news/a-closer-look-how-vultures-lazily-circle-air-1 

Compassion fatigue: Signs, symptoms, and how to cope. (n.d.). Canadian Medical Association. Retrieved June 12, 2022, from https://www.cma.ca/physician-wellness-hub/content/compassion-fatigue  

Figure 1. An example of a flight path of an adult vulture. Flight… (n.d.). ResearchGate. Retrieved June 12, 2022, from https://www.researchgate.net/figure/An-example-of-a-flight-path-of-an-adult-vulture-Flight-alternating-between-gliding-blue_fig1_303955926

Gleeson, B. (n.d.). 5 Reasons Why There Are No Bad Teams, Just Bad Leaders. Forbes. Retrieved June 21, 2022, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/brentgleeson/2016/06/29/5-reasons-why-there-are-no-bad-teams-just-bad-leaders/

Harel, R., Horvitz, N., & Nathan, R. (2016). Adult vultures outperform juveniles in challenging thermal soaring conditions. Scientific Reports, 6, 27865. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep27865

Kelly, J. (n.d.). Indeed Study Shows That Worker Burnout Is At Frighteningly High Levels: Here Is What You Need To Do Now. Forbes. Retrieved June 20, 2022, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackkelly/2021/04/05/indeed-study-shows-that-worker-burnout-is-at-frighteningly-high-levels-here-is-what-you-need-to-do-now/

Khosravifard, S., Venus, V., Skidmore, A. K., Bouten, W., Muñoz, A. R., & Toxopeus, A. G. (2018). Identification of Griffon Vulture’s Flight Types Using High-Resolution Tracking Data. International Journal of Environmental Research, 12(3), 313–325. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41742-018-0093-z

Radio ·, C. B. C. (2016, October 14). Joy on demand: The three second fix | CBC Radio. CBC.https://www.cbc.ca/radio/tapestry/happy-happy-joy-joy-1.3804787/joy-on-demand-the-three-second-fix-1.3804789

2 thoughts on “Learn to Soar- Dealing with Burnout in the Animal Care Industry”

  1. Well written and well researched Kyle. You are clearly an asset in your field and very passionate about sharing your experiences and knowledge. Thank you kindly. Great work.

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