Author: Jessica Terrizzi
Published: March 30 2022
Last Edit: April 1 2022
(6 min read)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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