10 Years of Data from the Largest Study Ever Conducted on Animal Shelter Employees

By Mallory F. Fiery, MA, Licensed Psychological Associate & Steven G. Rogelberg, PhD, Chancellor’s Professor – Organizational Science, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Euthanasia, kitten season, limited financial resources…often, there seems an unending litany of stressors involved in the daily management of animal welfare and the dedicated staff who make it possible. Over ten years ago, we became interested in addressing the alarming rates of burnout and low morale all too often witnessed in the animal sheltering industry.  This led to creation of our outreach program called the Shelter Diagnostic System.  Nearly 100 shelters later, we have amassed the largest database of shelter employee attitudes ever collected.  These powerful data have revealed important insights with regard to strengths and areas for improvement within the management of shelter staff.  Below, we offer some key learnings, recommendations, and resources from our data.

  1. Less than 40% of shelter staff are satisfied with cross-departmental teamwork. While within-department camaraderie can be beneficial, what seems to happen is that often, staff take on the identity of “their” department to the exclusion of the shared organizational mission. Consider creating a cross-departmental project team comprised of staff and management to brainstorm ways in which each department can help the other. This promotes equal representation, creativity, and an increased likelihood that solutions will be feasible across departments. It also actively engages staff with management in a partnered approach to problem solving. Repeat this activity every 2-3 months.

  2. Only about 60% of staff report satisfaction with organizational communication. The most successful organizations make a point of communicating information multiple times through multiple avenues (e.g., meetings, e-mails, face to face). Facilitating both top-down (management to staff through regular staff meetings) and bottom-up (staff to management) communication helps to make your organization feel more intimate and also gives staff a sense of “voice.”  Consider implementing a virtual “Question Box” and encouraging staff to provide suggestions on how to improve processes or the work environment. Be sure to take questions seriously and provide very prompt feedback (e.g., 36-hour turnaround or less). Consider summarizing questions and answers in a meeting, via a shelter-wide e-mail, or bulletin board.

  3. Create transparent, easily achievable advancement opportunities. Along with pay, a lack of advancement opportunities is a consistent complaint. Consider creating levels within jobs, such as “Animal Technician I,” “Animal Technician II,” etc. to give staff a sense of achievement and upward mobility. Clearly delineate the responsibilities and skills needed for each of these roles within job descriptions, and outline the criteria and qualifications for advancement to the next level. Consider incorporating all of this information within your Employee Handbook that is provided at orientation.


Additional Resources

Shelter Diagnostic System – Employee Engagement Survey

Improving Organizational Communication and Cross-Departmental Teamwork – White Papers by the SDS Team


Steven G. Rogelberg, PhD is a Chancellor’s Professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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