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Compassion Fatigue

Author: Jessica Terrizzi

Published: March 30 2022

Last Edit: April 1 2022

(6 min read)

Overview

Have you ever been in a situation where you were helping a friend in need of support, but eventually realized that you could no longer empathize with them? Perhaps you found yourself getting frustrated with this friend, or even wanting to distance yourself from them a bit. Maybe this was because the person kept putting themselves in the same situation over and over again and you were sick of it. Or maybe it was because you had a million problems of your own, and you didn’t have energy to devote to helping this person solve their problem. This experience is called compassion fatigue and is a common response to constantly facing people in distressing situations. 
Experiencing compassion fatigue doesn’t mean that you don’t care about other people, or that you are a heartless monster who is incapable of empathy, it is a normal and adaptive reaction. When dealing with frequent negativity and trauma, human beings eventually become depleted of their ability for compassion. After all, we only have so many mental resources to begin with. As described by Showalter (2010), we experience compassion fatigue when we “have nothing left to give”. This sometimes happens in personal interactions, but also frequently occurs within emotionally laden careers such as nursing, mental health care, and, of specific interest, law enforcement.
As a therapist, I can personally say that mental health providers experience times when working with intense concerns, or with certain distressed clients, can become exhausting. Police officers are similarly exposed to tragedy on a regular basis and, on top of that, are typically the first person to manage the emotional consequences that these tragedies have on others. It is natural in those circumstances to become desensitized and burnt out, and maybe not feel as much empathy as you previously had. Officers are experiencing vicarious pain in these situations, as well as secondary trauma.
Simply talking to rookie officers versus veteran officers can show you just how much compassion fatigue exists and how it develops. I remember when an officer confided in me that she had just seen her first body and what this was like for her. After speaking with her, I thought about another officer who had started only about a year earlier than her and how he described similar events to me. The difference was fascinating–only one year apart in their time on the job, yet the way they discussed traumatic events was completely different. One was more emotionally charged, while the other was more nonchalant and distant. Now, this could be for several reasons besides compassion fatigue; however, it did make me think about what the implications of compassion fatigue are, and how it affects police officers.

Officers experience both physiological and psychological stress as a result of their jobs...[T]hese factors, in addition to issues such as public criticism, put officers at notably high risk for compassion fatigue.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Figley (1995) originally described compassion fatigue as “the cost of caring” experienced by professionals who work with individuals who are distressed emotionally or physically. Essentially, compassion fatigue is defined as a decreased desire or ability to manage the distress of others, and is a form of secondary trauma response. In other words, individuals experiencing compassion fatigue have decreased empathy and overall compassion for others who are in distress (Figley, 2002). Compassion fatigue is frequently found in healthcare settings due to the emotional nature of working in these professions, and most of the literature on this issue focuses on these settings. Anderson and Papazoglou (2015) however, argue that police officers are in an especially vulnerable position to developing compassion fatigue. In fact, they cite Gilmartin (2002) and explain that officers experience both physiological and psychological stress as a result of their jobs. Therefore, it is suggested that these factors, in addition to issues such as public criticism, put officers at notably high risk for compassion fatigue. 

How does it affect other major stressors?

Anderson and Papazoglou (2015) go on to suggest that compassion fatigue can lead to negative emotions such as apathy and hostility, which ultimately affects an officer’s job commitment.  Experiencing compassion fatigue can also be problematic, as it leads to issues such as physical and mental exhaustion, depression, and self doubt (Showalter, 2010). Further, compassion fatigue can lead to poor concentration, feelings of hopelessness, and hypervigilance. Each of these consequences can negatively affect an officer’s ability to perform their job-related duties, making compassion fatigue a serious issue (Burnett et al., 2019).

Common warning signs of compassion fatigue include emotional exhaustion within personal relationships, hopelessness, and decreased job satisfaction.

Steps to reducing Compassion Fatigue

First of all, it is important to pay attention to the signs of compassion fatigue and to keep tabs of one’s current functioning so that appropriate action can be taken if needed. According to Cordaro (2020), common warning signs of compassion fatigue include emotional exhaustion within personal relationships, hopelessness, and decreased job satisfaction. If someone is vulnerable to compassion fatigue, Showalter (2010) and Burnett et al. (2019) emphasize the importance of self care to reduce or prevent it from occurring. Specifically, putting time aside to rest and to engage in meaningful activities is important when dealing with compassion fatigue, as it allows individuals to recharge. Individuals who are in these professions need to establish an effective work-life balance in order to work through compassion fatigue. Showalter (2010) also suggests speaking to either a therapist or someone else who is non-judgemental and understanding, and to work through the anger and fear associated with this experience. Practicing mindfulness is another important tool in handling compassion fatigue, as well as engaging in exercise (Showalter, 2010).  These methods are especially effective when presented as part of a comprehensive wellness program, like we have implemented in Arlington, VA.

Compassion fatigue is a common experience among individuals in helping professions that can have negative consequences both physically and psychologically. It is important to remain aware of how compassion fatigue may be affecting you, and how you can best work through it. Self care is a great way to avoid compassion fatigue, or reduce it if you are already experiencing it, so I would encourage you to think about ways you can practice this. It is also important to note that those who experience compassion fatigue in the professional setting do not start off feeling this way. These individuals often explain that they initially viewed helping others as both important and satisfying (Showalter, 2010). 

Putting time aside to rest and to engage in meaningful activities is important when dealing with compassion fatigue, as it allows individuals to recharge.

Compassionate Officers need the most help

With all of this being said, I wanted to end this post on a positive note and share that those who are experiencing compassion fatigue are actually those who care the most. Figley (1995) suggests that the individuals who are most vulnerable to compassion fatigue are those who are the most empathetic. So, if you are experiencing this problem, please know that it does not mean that you have lost your ability to care: rather, it is that you care too much, and there are ways to work through it effectively.

Jessica Terrizzi, M.A.

Ph.D Student in Counseling Psychology

Jess is a 4th year doctoral student at the University of Akron. She has a strong interest in law enforcement due to her family’s extensive background in policework. Through experiences with family and friends who are in this field, Jess has recognized a need for applying psychology to law enforcement through both research and the development of wellness programs. Jess also has an interest in researching both masculinity and trauma, and plans on working with police officers in the clinical setting.

References

  • Andersen, J. P., & Papazoglou, K. (2015). Compassion fatigue and compassion satisfaction among police officers: An understudied topic. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, 17(3), 661-663. https://doi.org/10.4172/1522-4821.1000259
  • Burnett, M. E., Sheard, I., & St Clair-Thompson, H. (2020). The prevalence of compassion fatigue, compassion satisfaction and perceived stress, and their relationships with mental toughness, individual differences and number of self-care actions in a UK police force. Police Practice and Research, 21(4), 383-400. https://doi.org/10.1080/15614263.2019.1617144
  • Cordaro, M. (2020). Pouring from an empty cup: The case for compassion fatigue in higher education. Building Healthy Academic Communities Journal4(2), 17-28.
  • Figley, C. R. (1995). Compassion fatigue: Toward a new understanding of the costs of caring. In B. H. Stamm (Ed.), Secondary traumatic stress: Self-care issues for clinicians, researchers, and educators (pp. 3–28). The Sidran Press.
  • Figley, C.R. (2002). Compassion fatigue: Psychotherapists’ chronic lack of self-care. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(11), 1433-1441. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.10090
  • Gilmartin, K. M. (2002). Emotional survival for law enforcement. Tucson, AZ: ES.
  • Showalter, S. E. (2010). Compassion Fatigue: What is it? Why does it matter? Recognizing the symptoms, acknowledging the impact, developing the tools to prevent compassion fatigue, and strengthen the professional already suffering from the effects. American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, 27(4), 239–242.

This post does not provide medical or clinical advice and is no substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It is intended for informational purposes only. Visitors who access the post and rely on its content do so at their own risk. This post represents the opinions of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. If you are feeling lost or hopeless, or someone you know is feeling lost or hopeless, call the national suicide prevention hotline at (800) 273-8255


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