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Tired of being tired: compassion fatigue

August 26, 2019  By Isabelle Sauve

Compassion fatigue, also called vicarious traumatization, is “a state of tension experienced by those helping people or animals in distress… a concern with the suffering of those being helped to the degree it creates a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.” Compassion fatigue is characterized by emotional, cognitive and behavioural properties.

It is also known as a condition whereby a gradual lessening of compassion or affect takes place over the course of time. It is common for those who work directly with victims to be affected.

Symptoms of compassion fatigue include a shift in worldview, cynicism, absenteeism, irritability, decreased experiences of pleasure, depression, mental and physical exhaustion, isolation, impaired judgment, weight fluctuation, anxiety, somatic complaints, hopelessness, and an overarching negative perspective. It is a type of situational desensitization which trickles over to other aspects of one’s life. It has the potential of impacting not only one’s professional life but also one’s personal life.

Compassion fatigue was first recognized among healthcare workers. Further studies confirm persons in other professions are also at risk. The willingness, energy and effort to help others or alleviate suffering can come at a cost. As a collective, law enforcement personnel often recount the opportunity to help others as a main reason to pursue a career in this field. This places them at elevated risk for developing compassion fatigue.


Law enforcement professionals routinely assist victims, persons in distress and those who are less privileged, while others are more indirectly involved. Both those directly and indirectly involved with victims of trauma can be affected by compassion fatigue. For example, call takers and dispatchers are frequently subject to secondary exposure by hearing troubling situations and speaking to victims. In fact, they may be at heightened risk due to a lessened ability to have compassion satisfaction, which often stems from on-scene problem solving and benefitting from the satisfaction of bringing closure to situations.

Compassion fatigue can also lead to lack of interest, decreased productivity, self-doubt and inability to focus. Akin to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other conditions, a workplace culture of “silence” or of “suck it up,” as well as an acceptance that symptoms are “the cost of doing business,” is a mecca for compassion fatigue. It is well known law enforcement professionals consent to a degree of risk inherent with the profession. Nonetheless, this particular way of thinking is harmful and must be challenged. It should not be accepted that emotional or psychological issues are part of anyone’s job description, regardless of financial or any other compensation.

Specific research suggests compassion fatigue can be contagious and spread to others within a group or an organization. As such, a preventative and educated culture is important for the organization’s overall wellness. Openly discussing issues is key.

A recent study also suggests higher levels of empathy can lead to lower levels of compassion fatigue. In short, the more empathy one has for victims and traumatic situations, the more it can lead to greater satisfaction and serve as a buffer to compassion fatigue.

Despite this, circumstances call for adaptive behaviour and law enforcement officers must learn to self-regulate their emotional reactions and express appropriate levels of sympathy for victims. As such, those with less experience in the field and/or low social support are at greater risk of developing compassion fatigue.

Organizational stressors can exacerbate compassion fatigue or they can play a significant role in reducing its impact through education and support. Without intervention, compassion fatigue can have an incrementally degenerative impact and lead to burnout. Early diagnostics of the symptoms can be vital to its treatment and impact reversal. Additionally, suitable self-care, stress reduction strategies and healthy coping mechanisms are key to preventing compassion fatigue.

Isabelle Sauve is a 12-year veteran with the OPP, currently with the Lanark County Detachment. She has a MA in psychology and is a
PhD candidate. She is also an ultramarathon/ endurance athlete and the Racing the Planet/4 Deserts 2018 Series winner as well as a Guinness World record holder. She can be contacted at:

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