Animal shelters and rescues cannot operate efficiently without volunteers and employees. Their dedication and time drive donations, adoptions, and increase the organization’s overall reach to the community. Often times, volunteers and employees get involved in making the animal welfare organization successful; they forget to take time for themselves. Directors, managers, and leaders need to know how to identify and understand the overall impact of stress or burnout.

Volunteer and employee stress negatively impacts their well-being and your animal shelter or rescue in a number of ways.

  1. Volunteers with no passion. The best animal shelters and rescues have passionate volunteers and employees who believe in the mission and vision of the organization. Highly stressed volunteers and employees lose their spark and passion which leaves them with little desire to be present.
  2. Lack of engagement. Stressed individuals stop offering to help or participating in team brainstorming sessions. Their mind is too full to be actively engaged in helping others or your organization.
  3. Animals feel it. Animals can feel stress. Over time, that stress impacts their personality and behavior patterns. Some animals stop eating or act aggressively to other animals and human beings as a result.
  4. Supporters see it. Potential adopting families visit your shelter or rescue full of excitement to find their new family member. Their excitement can quickly dwindle if they interact with a stressed volunteer or employee that makes them feel uncomfortable.

Avoid these negative impacts by knowing what warning signs to look for and actively helping your volunteers and employees.

  1. They withdraw or stop communicating.
  2. Positive attitudes turn negative.
  3. Low productivity.
  4. Increased absence due illness or headaches.
  5. Increased turnover.

Help them

  1. Continuous training. Offer consistent training and education to help them understand new techniques and responsibilities. Your effort to keep them knowledgeable shows you are invested in their overall success.
  2. Start a conversation. If an individual appears to be acting different, talk to them. Ask them if something is bothering them or if they are unhappy with their responsibilities. Sometimes volunteers or employees are stressed due to things outside of your control – but sometimes it has to do with their work. Listen and create a plan that helps reduce their stress and takes them back to the positive personality they were before.
  3. Show appreciation. Show gratitude for their efforts on a consistent basis. Volunteers and employees feel stress when they don’t think they are doing a great job or their efforts aren’t appreciated.
  4. Change their workload. If they are feeling overwhelmed by their workload, offer to change it either temporarily or permanently. Life changes every day and some volunteers may not be able to commit to the same number of hours as they once were.
  5. Offer a leave of absence. If the volunteer or employee’s stress stems from an outside source, they might need some time off to handle and manage the situation. Be understanding and give them the time they need. They are more likely to come back fully charged when they know you care.

Pay attention to your volunteer and employee actions and take action when they change. Volunteers and employees are vital to your long-term success. Show them you care about their well-being and help them manage their stress. Your animal shelter or rescue will experience positive results when you do.

Animals in shelters are at greater risk of carrying zoonotic diseases because of many factors, often in part because animals enter shelters without having had vaccinations and consistent veterinary care.  Roaming on streets, contact with other infected animals, and lack of sanitary conditions all carry potential risks.  Training volunteers to notice and take action when they suspect that an animal is sick will decrease the risk of spreading these diseases to humans and other animals.

Shelters should include policies and procedures for volunteers to take notice of behaviors that may signal zoonotic diseases.  Making sure that volunteers understand what to look for and what to do about it will keep risks minimal to visitors, workers, and other animals.  Workers trained to notice scratching, skin lesions, open sores, loss of hair, and other skin-related problems may be able to detect problems such as sarcoptic mange and ringworm.  Parasites such as roundworm and giardia may be treated and the spread of the disease curbed dramatically if volunteers know to isolate an infected animal right away.  Quick treatment will prevent contamination of kennels, visitor rooms, and exam areas, and will alert other workers of the need for care in handling the infected animal before it becomes a threat to humans.

Proper sanitation and cleanliness are difficult in a shelter.  Being sure that workers are especially sensitive to animals that are sick will go a long way limiting the number of humans who handle the animal, as well as the exposure of healthy animals to the illness.  Protective clothing can keep sick animals from scratching workers, and protect the worker’s skin from infected lesions and parasites.  A procedure to notify other workers of the sick animal’s status will also help volunteers understand the need for cleanliness and isolation until the animal is properly treated and cleared.  Clearly no animal shelter wants to adopt out a sick animal, or expose an adopting family to an illness  It’s well worth the time and effort to have safety procedures in place.