Washington Update

National Academies ILAR Roundtable Focuses on Compassion Fatigue

By: Naomi Charalambakis
Thursday, November 7, 2019

On October 28-29, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine Institute for Laboratory Animal Research (ILAR) hosted a two-day workshop that explored the various scientific, ethical, and occupational issues associated with laboratory animal research. In particular, discussions emphasized the impact of human-animal interactions and their systematic development in the research setting.

Human-animal interactions collectively describe the multidimensional relationships researchers, technicians, and veterinarians develop with lab animals. These relationships are not easy, as research typically involves specific training, procedures, and euthanasia. As a result, research animal investigators and staff commonly develop compassion fatigue, a combination of burnout, exhaustion, and secondary trauma caused by the demands of being empathic and helpful. In a recent report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that, between 1979 and 2015, veterinarians committed suicide up to 3.5 times more often than the national average.

Speakers referred to these and other statistics to demonstrate an unmet need within the lab animal community. Tracy Parker, incoming president of the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS), commented on the lack of rigorous training on compassion fatigue for institutional veterinarians, and suggested partnering with human resources associations to incorporate it in employee assistance program packages.

Other presentations emphasized the importance of culture change surrounding human-animal interactions in biomedical research settings. Melanie Graham, PhD, a University of Minnesota investigator, noted that most welfare assessments focus on adverse behaviors or emotions rather than creating environments that support animals, allowing them to achieve experimental tasks in ways suited to their biological nature. Dr. Graham stressed that training and relationship-building improves the animal experience, in turn enhancing the accuracy of scientific outcomes.

While complex, the issues of compassion fatigue and “animal-centric” care programs are not new; they date back in the literature to the 1980’s. Workshop participants agreed that the next challenge will be developing long-term resolutions that can be incorporated into institutional training programs.

“We’re still just scratching the surface on this topic,” concluded AALAS President Parker.