Feeling down, retailers? You might be genuinely ill

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Work with fish and feeling down all the time? There's a chance you're suffering from compassion fatigue, and might want to get it checked out, writes Nathan Hill.


So here's something I don't usually open up about. When I worked in the industry on the frontline as a retailer, I became intensely depressed. Not melancholy, or just a little bit down, but pathologically depressed. In my mind, I went to bad, bad places.

How could a fish lover, working in an environment with the creatures he adores, come to feel that way? I've maintained for years that I love this hobby, and this industry, even if I am among the first to admit it has its faults. I still love it now, for its flaws.

I never entered my career path with a sense of apprehension or the foreboding that it might not be for me. Instead I exploded, fresh out of college, and on to the scene with my head bulging with new ideas that I hoped would change the world of fishkeeping. From my early days as a public aquarist (it was diabolical pay that eventually made that particular career untenable) to my determined splurge into the retail world, I was energetic to such an extreme that some folks might suspect amphetamine abuse. I was hungry to go places, and more importantly I was passionate about fish.

By the end of my retail spell - ten years of it - I was a shell. Cliche? Maybe, but there it is. I'd had the last few grains of empathy stripped out of me more efficiently than an RO stripping minerals, and I vowed (a vow I was later to temporarily break) not to go back to a job behind a counter.

I've long held a few suspicions about what may have happened to me, but have lacked anything substantial to back it up. How does someone go from being a clockwork toy of enthusiasm, constantly running at full pelt, into a morose lump who can't drag himself out of bed?

One compelling suggestion is that maybe - just maybe - I was dealing with a form of compassion fatigue. If you work in fish retail and you've gradually found yourself evolving from happiness to the dysphoria, there's a chance that you might be too. Compassion fatigue isn't exactly a new theory, but if you don't know about it, and you're emotionally attached to livestock, then you should be aware of the condition.

To be sure, there are many reasons why aquatic retail might get a person down. Weekend work sucks. Bank holiday work sucks. Coming in on Christmas and Boxing days to feed fish and waterchange sucks. Late nights awaiting that box of fish held up at Heathrow because some jobsworth in another country forgot to fill in the right forms sucks. Having to tell customers that they can't have what they want sucks. Getting your fingertips nailed by a pufferfish you forgot was lurking in a tank sucks. Electric shocks from a broken heater or dunked light suck. I know it all sucks because I remember it all intimately, and compared to how my post-retail life is now, things don't suck. There are lots of sucky things about this line of work. I'm pretty sure you've thought of your own examples already.

I would guess that for the more sensitive souls among us, the above (far from exhaustive) list alone could be enough to cause a person to cry in the shower at the end of the day.

But let me get back to compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is a phenomenon that was traditionally thought to affect those who work directly with human trauma victims - paramedics, nurses, psychologists, etc.

But Charles Figley Ph.D., the director of the Tulane Traumatology defines it with the inclusion of animals, as: "Emotional exhaustion, caused by the stress of caring for traumatised or suffering animals or people"

To look at animal rescue workers in the United States - and noting at this time that those in fish retail aren't exactly included under this umbrella term (though I'll get to that in a moment) - the suicide rate per 1 million workers sits at 5.3. Putting that into perspective, if you rescue animals in America, you have a suicide rate as high as firefighters and police officers - the highest in the country. The national average for suicides across all American workers sits at 1.5 per 1 million. Those folks who care for animals are in a higher risk bracket than the general populace. Over three times higher.

To try to make the jump from animal rescuers to fish shop workers might come across as absurdly optimistic, though I hope to highlight at least some similarities - some crossovers - between the two camps.

First of all, let me make quite explicit - because I know some pedant somewhere will try to pick me up on it - that I'm neither trying to reduce the status or undermine the seriousness of what animal rescuers do. I've even toyed with getting in to that line of work before, but I know that if I tried then it would rapidly destroy me. I went out once with the RSPCA on a fish case, involving dozens of neglected tanks containing fish that couldn't even move for outgrowing their homes, and it was wholly disturbing. Zeus knows, I have thought about it at extreme length. But if I were in a position of exposure to the worst kinds of animal abuse, or even having to euthanize dogs, I would crash and burn. I hold animal rescuers at a position of the highest esteem and I'm reverential to all that they do.

So is it possible for a person in aquatic retail to get as attached to fish as others would with 'higher' animals like cats and dogs? Maybe not everyone, but I can't see why not in some cases. I've cried over a dead fish before, and I know I'm not the only one. Perhaps it's an acquired skill to give an Oscar the same moral consideration as a rat or cat, but some people can manage it.

Paradoxically, the kind of person who feels about fish that way would be the exact kind of soul drawn to a career in fish care. Absolute empathy for fish - knowing fish intimately, knowing exactly what conditions they'd love, and having the desire to create them - may appear at face value to be a considerable advantage to someone in that line of work. How often do you hear other industries using the slogan 'passionate about XY or Z'?

Personally, and with hindsight, I suspect such a degree of empathy might equally play as a massive disadvantage.

Empathising with animals is great, if you can do it. But once you start down that path, you'll likely find yourself directly emotionally investing in their welfare and wellbeing. Let me offer a loose, generic example.

Say you work in a store where you have a box of catfish come in extrememly late one night. Many inside have died because of the delays in transit, but some of them, though looking incredibly rough, are salvable. You're up until half two in the morning, making sure they're acclimated properly.

Over the coming weeks, you take these fish and get them back to perfect condition. They start hand feeding from you, colour up and even go through the motions of spawning. Then one day, a customer who you think you've vetted incredibly well buys them, takes them home, and kills the lot by failing to mention an adult Jack Dempsey in his tank that's just shredded them to bits. He's then back in, picking a fight, trying to manipulate your own words (you said they'd be okay!) and demanding a refund, without a moment of consideration for the unfortunate fish that have just met their demise.

If you're a retailer, then right now you're probably imagining something similar that once happened to you, and you're very likely feeling a pang of anger about it.

If so, then it goes a small way towards making my point. In the retail industry you stumble across a plethora of injustices against fish. You might come across customers keeping fish in conditions you consider totally unsuitable - fish trembling in the corner of their tackily decorated, pink-gravelled nano, or Corydoras being battered in a Malawi tank. You know and I know that these fish shouldn't be kept that way, but people will still try it, and entirely at the fish's expense.

People who say 'it's just a fish' are likely to bring out your most murderous side. People who lack any kind of care ethic towards livestock make you sick to your guts. It's the absolute lack of compassion that gets you down most, I'll wager - the fact that not only have they killed a fish, but they see nothing wrong with that. in their minds it's just a product, after all.

This kind of daily interaction can be draining to anyone, but workers who are conscientious, self-giving and charitable, or are perfectionists tend to be even more susceptible to compassion fatigue. It appears that the kind of person who would go out of their way to protect a single tetra being bullied up in a shoal would be in the high-risk camp. Does that sound like the kind of thing you'd do?

Some could argue that we in retail don't deal with cases of neglect or abuse. I think that many of us do, vicariously, but on a smaller scale than with an obviously tormented animal. We get shown photos and videos of fish dying, we get symptoms of fish illnesses relayed down the phone to us, we get corpses of fish that we have nurtured and loved shoved under our noses every time a customer manages to kill them and bring them back in store. We hear the disaster stories firsthand from customers who have killed their fish, either accidentally or worse. Trying to care for fish remotely can be as pressing as having them directly entrusted in your care. And it can be more frustrating knowing that you're helpless to stop what's happening.

I'll repeat, I'm not saying that having a customer with terrified, dying fish is as upsetting as finding a dog starved in a kennel, chained up in the cold and wet (though why shouldn't it be?). But I will say that we fishkeepers might underestimate the levels of empathy we feel, and a considerable chunk of the customer base almost definitely underestimates it.

I'm also saying that the cumulative effect of experiencing wilful disregard by customers, on a daily basis, every day, every week and every year, will eventually start to crush a person who genuinely cares. Perhaps we don't get large 'tabloid worthy' calamities, but we do struggle with a corrosive barrage of smaller ones - knowing the numbers of fish that could be suffering at any given time.

I know the most cynical of my readers are looking at this and thinking 'You people have no reason to be sad! There are others starving and dying in wars right now!' as though that's some kind of knock down argument against unhappiness. Well, maybe, but by the same token, you're not allowed to be happy, because there are people in this world having way more fun than you are. See how that relativity thing doesn't work? It's as absurd a position as saying you're not allowed to complain about being hot, because someone else is hotter, or complain about me punching you in the arm, because someone else is being beaten considerably harder. If you work in the trade and suspect compassion fatigue, then look in to it, regardless of whether other people are worse off than you out there.

Also, if you're not in retail and you're reading this critically, you might be considering shooting me down by citing examples of retailers who have no empathy for livestock at all. That's all well and good, but it doesn't really impact upon what I'm writing here. Yeah, there are some terrible retailers out there. I've met some of them. The motive behind their careers is one of money alone, in the same way that a man working in an abattoir probably isn't there because he empathises with pigs. I'm not trying to raise flags for the people that don't care, but I am worried for the mental health of those who do.

I'm talking about the wider retail crowd. I have a few lines of conversation that I can start when I enter a store, and I can find out within seconds whether the employee I'm speaking to is passionate about livestock welfare or not. Those guys who are indifferent to fish needs are out there, for sure, but I don't think they make up too sizeable a crowd, at least not in UK circles. Most of the people I meet are very sincerely in this for love of fish.

Why would I raise this now? Well, I've spoken to a few people recently who I identify with as being exactly where I was, emotionally speaking, when I was just about ready to jump under a truck. They know who they are, and hopefully now they might consider assessing their feelings - their 'symptoms' as it were - and talking about it with a professional if they think they need to.

As a guide, here's a little of what you're looking out for as symptoms of compassion fatigue:

- Depression, especially tied with wanting to quit your job but not being sure why.

- Nightmares. Sounds odd, I know, but I had them. And I've spoken to others who have experienced work related nightmares, too.

 - 'Flashes' of rage and anger outbursts.

 - Cynicism and emotional numbness. I was particularly prone to this, with hindsight. And that also led me to...

 - Switching between emotions. Dry one minute, then angry, then sad.

- Isolation, even from loved ones.

- Sideswipes and snipes. Do you find yourself making statements and quips about people that surprise even you?

- Repeated lateness, ineptness at duties and lack of concentration.

- An inability to relate to colleagues or customers.

- Racing thoughts, inability to focus on one thing.

- Constant exhaustion and lowered immunity.

- Reliance on alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism outside of work.

Admittedly, we can all get down every now and then. Stern critics will look at the above list of symptoms and imagine that anyone in any role could suffer from them. They'd be right too, but I'll add as a personal anecdote that I see much more of it in fish shop workers - long term workers - than I do in people with other jobs. And I suspect that had I known about all this back then, I could have addressed my own problems in a different way. Perhaps self medicating with endless rum wasn't the best move...

Most of the listed symptoms can be triggered by a powerful hangover, or a spat with a friend. But when they're coming out in work, and as a result of working with fish, then perhaps it's time to get it looked at. Especially if it's lingering for weeks.

To be fair, there's little incentive for me to berate 'bad' customers on here, or try to change their ways. For one, they won't be reading. If you've come this far through a piece written about compassion fatigue in fish retailers, then I'll wager you're already enough of an empathic person, or at least a curious one, and with the intellect to realise that even if you don't feel that way about fish, then others do.

Still, it's worth bearing in mind. Even today I wonder if I'd be a different person if I'd chosen a different career path, or at least sought a different line of help. I'm pretty sure I know the answer, too.

Ultimately, we as an industry need to retain our best staff where we can, and if they're leaving - as I suspect they are - from an unrecognised condition, then anything that can help them deal with that has to be a good thing.