There's no doubt about it—animal protection is a high stress field. It involves multi-tasking, a daunting range of knowledge and skills, emotionally charged interactions with both humans and animals, risk of serious physical injury, and the need to make life and death decisions. It's no wonder people in this field often suffer serious effects of job stress.
To make matters even more interesting, often managers in animal protection are people who mastered the list of challenges above so effectively that they were rewarded with a promotion to a management position. In effect, this is like taking the above list of stressors, multiplying each stressor by the number of staff you manage, and then adding another large dose of stress related to the gap between your knowledge of management and the actual demands of the job.
In this second of a three part series on stress and burnout in animal protection, we will explore how managers can learn to manage their own stress in order to both take better care of themselves and, in turn, to improve the function of the teams they supervise. For a detailed explanation of the stress/burnout connection, please see Stress and Animal Protection Work.
Dealing with stress successfully involves four major tasks:
When you have read about each task, use the Manager's Coping Strategy at the end of this article to work through the process on your own. We've organized the questions to ask and the steps that make up each task to guide you through them.
In thinking about your stressors, it's important to consider absolutely everything that causes stress for you on the job. Your list of stressors will most likely be different from anyone else's list, because our past life experiences and our individual personalities play a huge part in how we experience the world. From a brainstormed list of all your stressors, build in detail—taking care to be as specific as possible—in order to understand what, exactly, is stressful for you. To do this, try asking yourself "why" at least five times for each of your stressors. For example, if you find talking on the telephone stressful, in asking yours "why" a number of times, you may come up with a list that looks something like this:
because I can't see the person's facial expressions and I'm a visual person,
because I don't have the time to be on the phone,
because it's hard for me to respond to things quickly—I need time to think,
because the sound of the phone ringing is like nails on a chalk board for me,
because I feel as if I'm being rude to the people who are waiting to talk with me in person.
As you can see, through this process you will actually be expanding your list of stressors, but you will also be deepening your insight about what is stressful for you and why. Insight is a great first step to making a change for the better.
Determining the Knowledge Gap
You may remember from Stress and Animal Protection Work that the most universally significant work stress (and that which causes emotional exhaustion, the most serious aspect of burnout) is a discrepancy between knowledge and job demands. Every time we are required to perform a task that we haven't been properly trained or prepared for, we experience substantial psychological strain.
This strain is intensified in animal protection work because the work and decisions required in this field can (and often do) involve the potential for physical harm, suffering, or even death. Clearly, then, the goal is to reduce the gap between what people know and what people are required to do.
To deal effectively with your stress, then, it makes sense to identify the things you don't know that are getting in your way of feeling competent and capable. An easy way to figure this out is to look at a list of your top stressors, and for each stressor complete the following sentence: "I could deal with this stressor much better (easier) if I knew how to ________________."
Be creative during this step in your coping. You might even want to ask colleagues or a mentor to look at your list of stressors and give you ideas about what knowledge or skills they think would eliminate the stress. Complete the same sentence multiple times for each stressor until you've exhausted the knowledge/learning possibilities. For example, if one of your top stressors is staff who don't do their job, you might brainstorm the following possible knowledge gaps:
"I could deal with staff not doing their job much better if...
I knew how to fire someone
I could give constructive feedback more easily
I knew how to motivate people
I understood why people don't do their jobs in the first place
I wasn't insecure about dealing with conflict
I knew how to deal with difficult people
I were more clear and direct with my instructions
I knew how to hold people accountable...
As with the first step of identifying your stressors, this process will help you develop insight into the knowledge and skills that you need to perform your job comfortably and confidently.
Creating Your Learning Plan
By this point you know exactly what stresses you out and why, and you know what you could learn in order to deactivate those stressors. The next step in taking care of yourself is to create a learning plan which will help bridge the gap between what you know how to do and what you are actually required to do in your job.
Select the skills and topics that are of most interest to you (remember that we learn best when we are interested in what we're learning and we find the information useful in our lives), and start by choosing one or two to focus on at a time. Consider these topics with the help of your supervisor, colleagues, and/or mentor to brainstorm all the ways that you might develop your knowledge and skills in these areas. (Books, books on tape, college courses, workshops, videos, conferences, consultants or coaches, peer group study, in-service training, etc.) Create a plan for what you want to learn, how you want to learn it, and what you will do to positively reinforce yourself as you're learning.
Implementing the Plan
The final step, of course, is to actually implement your learning plan. Remember the principles of humane training and give yourself lots of encouragement and positive reinforcement as you work to learn new things.
All of these steps require your time and attention, which means that you may experience stress even thinking about developing your own personal coping strategy. The good news is, all of this time is a great investment that will pay off over and over. Not only will you be a more knowledgeable, effective manager, and a person much less stressed at work, but you will also have developed valuable insight and experience for helping your staff to cope successfully with work stress.
Managers' Coping Strategy
Task 1: Identify Your Stressors
Brainstorm a list of everything that stresses you out.
Add the answers to these questions to your list:
What kinds of requests or demands cause stress for you?
What things that people say cause stress for you?
What things that people or animals do cause stress for you?
What about your work environment causes stress for you? (space, crowding, temperature, lighting, sound, equipment, etc.)
What mental distractions cause stress for you?
What's always last to get done on your "to do" list?
For every stress on your list, ask yourself "Why does this thing stress me out?" up to five times, and write down your answers. For example: "Why does doing the monthly statistics stress me out?"
Why? ...because I don't have any quiet time at my desk Why? ...because I hate fighting with the computer program Why? ...because I always have to track down animals and records Why? ...because I'm worried about the numbers looking bad Why? ...because I don't have the time to do it
Now review your entire list of stressors, including your answers to the "why?" questions. Notice themes. Select the 10 stressors on your list that are the most stressful for you and write them on a clean sheet of paper.
Task 2: Determine the Knowledge Gap
For each of your top 10 stressors, complete the following sentence multiple times: "I could deal with this stressor much better (easier) if I knew how to _______________________."
For example: "I could deal with customers much better if I knew how to ...
focus people on the right animals in a way that they would accept
manage my time so I wasn't always thinking about all the work on my desk while I'm waiting on customers
take care of multiple people at once
trust that my staff are doing what they're supposed to be doing while I'm with customers
teach my staff how to handle customers better
turn off the other demands in my head so I could focus on the customer.
Take your list of top 10 stressors to your colleagues and mentor, and ask them for ideas about what you might learn that would alleviate the stressor.
Look at your combined list of things you could learn that would alleviate stress for you. Group the learning into themes.
Task 3: Create your Learning Plan
From your learning themes in Task 2, choose one to three themes that are of most interest to you at this time.
Identify one or two specific skills from these themes that you feel hold the greatest potential for helping you to reduce your work stress.
Brainstorm a list of all the things you could do to learn the skills identified above. Ask your colleagues and mentor for ideas, too.
Work with your supervisor to choose your favorite ideas for learning these skills, (Hint: to select favorite ideas, think about those times in your life when learning was fun and productive for you—and select ideas that are similar to your past learning successes) and to budget both the time and money for the learning activities.
Task 4: Implement
List some things that feel like rewards to you—include a few big rewards, as well as little rewards. (For example, 15 minutes to myself, chocolate, a day alone with my animals, a bath, a walk, a new book (or time to read one), two days without any phone calls or emails, dinner out, etc.)
Start your learning plan according to what you determined in Task 3. Every time you take a step towards learning, follow it with a reward from your list.
When you are satisfied that you're developing a new level of confidence or mastery with a particular skill, celebrate! Treat yourself to a large reward and invite others to help you celebrate your accomplishment.
Repeat Tasks 3 and 4.
Bert Troughton, MSW, is ASPCA Vice President of Pro Learning, Community Outreach.