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Police Officer Compassion Fatigue

By Dr. Konstantinos Papazoglou, PhD, C. Psych.

Compassion fatigue in police officers and other individuals in care-giving professions refers to the cost of caring when helping those who suffer. Although not an exhaustive list, signs of compassion fatigue include the following: 

  • Workplace: impacted decision making, low professional pride, skepticism
  • Cognitive: lack of concentration, blame of self and others, intrusive thoughts
  • Emotional: anger, guilt, hopelessness, shame
  • Behavioural: disrupted sleep, hypervigilance, substance abuse

Police officers find themselves in a multiplicity of situations where they are required to provide emotional support to those impacted by crime, survivors of natural disasters, or other catastrophic events. When individuals have been traumatized by overwhelming events, police officers and other first responders represent sources of order, information, and support. 

As a result of caring for those who are suffering, frontline individuals who repeatedly confront violent and tragic circumstances may have difficulty detaching from the horrific events they encounter while others are at risk of becoming emotionally detached or numb. Compounding this is the suppression of emotions where officers focus solely on the investigative aspects of the situation. In other words, they experience compassion fatigue, which can lead to professional burnout, which is often associated with exposure to job-related stressors such as too much paperwork or long shifts. 

However, individuals drawn to the helping professions derive gratification when in service to others. When experiencing commitment to the job and enhanced well-being, feelings of compassion satisfaction are present.

Although it may appear intuitive that compassion satisfaction would decrease as compassion fatigue increases, it’s worth noting the various techniques to strengthen satisfaction to mitigate or neutralize feelings of compassion fatigue. 

Implications 

Compassion fatigue results when police officers are faced with the inability to resolve the pain and suffering others are experiencing. Alcohol abuse, difficulties in controlling anger and frustrations, and isolating from family and friends can be emergent behaviours. Organizational stressors and public criticism may erode an individual’s sense of personal pride and community contribution. Left unchecked, repercussions may include inappropriate use-of-force decisions and hostile or apathetic behaviour. Failure to recover from the stress can lead to physical and mental health issues.

When officers can appreciate the importance of their services, despite exposure to overwhelming circumstances, and care for trauma victims, they often experience feelings of compassion satisfaction, which can result in enhanced job performance.

Recognizing compassion fatigue and regaining satisfaction can have positive effects on officers’ health, well-being, and occupational performance.

Although there are a variety of effective self-care approaches, including emotional regulation, controlled breathing, and mindfulness, inclusion of these techniques in officer training can contribute to managing compassion fatigue. To enhance compassion satisfaction supervisors can celebrate and recognize positive community interactions and officer contributions. Peer-support programs, alternate assignments, and officer rotations from high-risk teams (e.g., child abuse units) could be offered to those experiencing fatigue or professional burnout. Community groups can help foster compassion satisfaction by acknowledging officer contributions while expressing appreciation. Leadership and administration can set a positive tone and set of values that recognizes the underground emotions that can build within officers who are exposed to the suffering of those in their communities. 

Developing a psychological shield against the negative effects of compassion fatigue can assist officers in building compassion satisfaction. Seeking counselling from practitioners familiar with policing can help officers improve their levels of compassion satisfaction and reduce compassion fatigue. 


Citations

Andersen, J., et al. (2018). Association of Authoritarianism, Compassion Fatigue, and Compassion Satisfaction among Police Officers in North America: An Exploration. International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences, 13(2).

Papazoglou, K., et al. (2017). Examining the Role of Police Compassion Fatigue and Negative Personality Traits in Impeding the Promotion of Police Compassion Satisfaction: A Brief Report. Journal of Law Enforcement, ISSN: 2161-0231 (online).

Papazoglou, K., et al. (2020). Police Compassion Fatigue. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.

Rubel, B. (n.d.). Compassion Fatigue vs. Burnout. Griefwork Center, Inc. Retrieved July 20, 2021.

https://www.griefworkcenter.com/compassion-fatigue-vs-burnout/