Compassion fatigue is an occupational hazard for those in helping professions. Exposure to people’s pain and traumatic events over the course of your law enforcement career changes you on a fundamental level. As police officers, you combat the evil in the world, aim to protect others and often place your own life at risk to protect the communities you serve. The highly specialized type of work you do can be a rewarding experience. However, increasingly stressful work environments, staffing shortages, limited resources, risks of being assaulted simply for wearing the uniform, and cynical and negative attitudes among co-workers can all gradually erode everything that keeps you connected to others.
Compassion fatigue is a term used to describe the profound physical, emotional and spiritual fatigue or exhaustion that can impact first responders over the course of their career. It does not happen overnight. Think of compassion fatigue as a one-way street — you are giving a constant output of your energy and compassion over a period of time, yet you are unable to get enough of the same back to reassure yourself that the world is a hopeful place. Over time, your ability to feel and care for others erodes, as does your empathy, hope and compassion for others and yourself.
Prolonged stress that evolves into burnout can make you more vulnerable to compassion fatigue. In the workplace, compassion fatigue can look like a disheartened, increasingly bitter and short-tempered co-worker who often contributes to a toxic work environment. They are prone to more errors and flaws in judgment and decision-making (both of which are important in police work). These co-workers are often known as the “crusty” ones.
Preventing and recovering from compassion fatigue
Preventing compassion fatigue from occurring in the first place is the preferred course of action; however, it is also possible to recover from compassion fatigue by putting in some additional effort. Here are some recommendations:
- If you are one of the lucky ones who has some control over your work schedule, be flexible with how you schedule your workday. Things can vary depending on how recharged (or not) you are feeling from the day prior, what order you schedule your tasks and what type of tasks you are performing that day. Try your best to balance human-oriented vs. task-oriented activities each day.
- Many cops do not have control over their schedule. In these situations, it is important to focus your efforts on things you can control. For example, if you must work overtime due to staffing shortages, try to pick shifts during your workweek so that your days off remain intact.
- When you are off duty, be off duty. Healthy boundaries will lessen the extent that work infiltrates personal time. This means not texting or talking about work. Do not answer your phone after hours if your current assignment doesn’t require it. Silencing phone notifications can be helpful.
- Schedule time off every few months. Even if you are simply on a staycation, it is important to take some time to disconnect from work. If you don’t want to take a full week of vacation time, take a few days off on the front- or back-end of your regular days off.
- Healthy diet and exercise are helpful ways to support your body’s and brain’s natural healing processes. Both have been shown to boost mood, energy levels and motivation.
- Our world bombards us with images and stories of human depravity and suffering. Taking regular breaks from social media and the news can help combat both burnout and compassion fatigue. This is especially important when you are off duty.
- Listen to your body, especially on your days off. Rest. Avoid consuming energy drinks or alcohol, which can divert resources your body needs to effectively repair and restore itself.
- Breath training is helpful to combat stress, burnout and compassion fatigue. Think of “good breathing” like any other skill you learn — consistency is key. Just because breathing is an involuntary body function does not mean that we do it well. By training yourself to breathe in a restorative way, you are also training your body’s nervous system to recover, which helps your mind recover. Some helpful techniques include box breathing (inhale 4 seconds, hold 4 seconds, exhale 4 seconds, hold 4 seconds), 10-second breathing (pace breathing to a 5-second inhale and a 5-second exhale), and 7–11 breathing (inhale 7 seconds, exhale 11 seconds). Find a breathing technique or a couple that work for you and start breath training five minutes per day for one week, then 10 minutes the second week and so on until you are training for 20 minutes per day.
It is important to remember that compassion fatigue is not an indicator of mental weakness or defect. One does not develop compassion fatigue because they did something wrong; rather, it is because they care or used to care. Try some of the above recommendations to counter compassion fatigue so that you can continue to function and feel at your best!
Dr. Medina Baumgart is an in-house psychologist with a large metropolitan law enforcement agency and a board-certified specialist in police and public safety psychology. Correspondence concerning this article can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.