Bioethics Blogs

From the Director: Shedding Light on Compassion Fatigue

By Elisa A. Hurley, PhD, executive director

PRIM&R is unique in the research ethics world, serving as we do both the human subjects research and animal care and use communities. And from this unique position, we often see bridges and links between work with animals and work with humans, whether it’s thinking about the translational impact research with animals has on understanding and treating human disease; identifying and addressing similarities in research oversight processes between human research protection and animal care and use programs; or recognizing parallels between the ethical concepts called into play in each domain – for example, risk/benefit analysis— and gleaning generalizable lessons from such commonalities.

I’ve recently been thinking about another bridge between humans and animals in the research world: compassion fatigue among the people who work with, care for, and oversee the welfare of laboratory animals. As a phenomenon, compassion fatigue is not limited to animal care and use—indeed, the topic is widely discussed in other caring professions (see for example, Compassion Fatigue: A Nurse’s Primer, this article from the Journal of Hospice and Palliative Nursing, or this Emergency Nurses’ Association Topic Brief)—but it is a predictable outcome of working with research animals.

For the purposes of this discussion, I define compassion fatigue as the unintended emotional distress, fatigue, or apathy that develops from caring for, investing in the wellbeing of, and bonding with, animals whose health or lives may be sacrificed for the good of discovery through research. Given the documented power of the human/animal bond, compassion fatigue can affect the well-being of highly skilled animal care and use professionals, and, ultimately, the care of the animals themselves.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.