Miguel Abi-hassan at #sawacon

Managing Workplace Stress for Animal Welfare Professionals


Miguel Abi-hassan is a trained occupational psychologist and CEO of the Halifax Humane Society in Florida. He’s been involved in animal welfare for decades, and specializes in helping animal welfare professionals better understand stress and the toll it takes on people in our field.

Abi-hassan’s approach is to train people to manage stress, and admit that it can’t be avoided. He noted that it is helpful to realize that the work of animal welfare is, by nature, difficult and prone to leading to stress: “We’re changing the way society works, we work against the grain.”


Understanding Stress

The first step to managing stress is to understand it. Defining terms precisely is helpful.

  • Compassion: A deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it
  • Stress: The way in which a person reacts to environmental stimuli  
  • Fatigue: Mental weariness resulting from exertion
  • Burnout: Too much pressure and too few sources of satisfaction

Our reaction to stressors is three-part. If we manage stress at stage 2, we can avoid the final stage – burnout.

Phases of the stress response cycle or general adaption syndrome (GAS):

  • Alarm – arousal and all internal resources focused on the stress factor
  • Resistance – body attempts to overcome stress factor
  • Exhaustion – stress that is unmanaged when it is at level 2 can lead to cognitive, emotional, biological, and psychosocial symptoms

Abi-hassan does not focus on “compassion fatigue” and instead trains people to maintain “compassion satisfaction” by managing stressors. Less than .002% of animal welfare professionals have a true compassion fatigue diagnosis.

If compassion satisfaction is not maintained, it can lead to anxiety, distress, burnout, and ultimately, compassion fatigue. Avoiding this downward spiral is the focus on Abi-hassan’s work.


How to Manage Stress

To help yourself and your staff manage stress, it’s important to recognize the warning signs. These can include:

  • Changes in work performance
  • Excessive use of sick leave
  • Rapid mood changes
  • Hopelessness
  • Loss of compassion
  • Feeling of seclusion
  • Negative effect on health

If you or your employees have negative stress symptoms, the next step is to understand your stressors and make a plan to combat them. Each plan is unique and personal.

Common approaches to managing stress include:

  • Focus on wellness. Improve health and diet, and get enough sleep, and consider holistic wellness practices such as breathing exercises, aromatherapy or massage.
  • Make time for recreation. Hobbies and exercise, especially those that consume your attention, will help give your brain a break and your body a workout.
  • Learn some new time management skills. As a start, consider the advice from work productivity Carson Tate, who also spoke at the SAWA Management Conference. 
  • Reach out for support. Seek support from family but don’t rely on them exclusively. Ask for help from people that “know more than you do” about stress, psychology and healing, such as ministry, counselors and employee assistance programs.


Cultivating Positivity

Attitude and how we think about stress also have a big impact on how we feel. Acknowledging that our jobs are inherently stressful and some amount of stress is inevitable can give you back some feelings of control. “One thing I want you to leave with today is that you are in control of stress,” said Abi-hassan.

Cultivating positivity, trying to find the lessons in things that fail, and seeing questions from the public at the shelter as an opportunity to educate are approaches Abi-hassan recommends. He noted that when people resist change, there is usually some kind of misunderstanding at play. Addressing that misunderstanding is a more empowering way to deal with questions than feeling frustrated at someone’s “ignorance.”

Practicing an “elevator speech,” or a thirty second speech you prepare in advance, for most questions will also prepare you to answer negative questions without becoming too emotionally involved.


During Busy Times

When life gets busy, it can become much harder to stick to a plan and spend time on activities to reduce stress. For these times, Abi-hassan offered a very simple approach to organizing time and getting things done without feeling overwhelmed:

  • Write a 4-6 thing to-do list, and then prioritize it
  • Define your hours by allotted duties
  • Schedule times for breaks
  • Eliminate interruptions or plan for them
  • Be organized at work and home
  • Get enough sleep

In the end, perhaps the biggest lesson from Abi-hassan’s presentation is this: we may not be in control of our stressors, but we’re all in control of how we think about our own stress. Taking some small actions to change the things we tell ourselves about our jobs and our clients can have a big positive impact on how we feel day to day.


The Association for Animal Welfare Advancement is a community of professionals committed to excellence in the management and operation of animal welfare and control organizations.

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