Compassion Fatigue Among Officers
By Lori J. Bosma and Stacy L. Henning, Ph.D.
Law enforcement is considered a high-stress helping profession. Officers are exposed to secondary trauma throughout their careers and sometimes experience primary trauma. Mixed with the stress of the job, this trauma can produce symptoms of compassion fatigue, which impacts the emotional and physical well-being of officers and can exacerbate volatile situations or incidents.
This article reviews the literature on behavioral outcomes of compassion fatigue in law enforcement officers and implications for the field of counseling. The findings of this review infer great success and benefits pertaining to the implementation of psychotherapy, psychoeducation, and workplace peer support programming among officers and the agencies that implement these counseling practices.
Commonly associated with caring professionals, such as nurses, mental health providers, and first responders,1 compassion fatigue is generally described in the literature as the result of routine exposure to trauma, which creates symptoms of psychological distress resembling those of the traumatized victims.2 It presents as a specific set of behaviors that can negatively impact job performance and other areas of life. Compassion fatigue involves not only being exposed to or witnessing trauma but caring for those who experience it; therefore, the terms secondary traumatic stress or vicarious trauma were used interchangeably with compassion fatigue throughout the literature.
While described in some literature as similar to compassion fatigue, burnout was differentiated by the pathways that lead to the behavioral outcomes.3 Burnout can be experienced in the absence of trauma and is more often caused by organizational stressors (e.g., inadequate supervisor support, peer-to-peer conflicts) than operational ones (e.g., care for victims of violence or perpetrators of crime).4 Compassion fatigue is a cross section of secondary traumatic stress and burnout. It results from repeated exposure to trauma and can be a precursor to burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).5
The overlap of pathways to the similar behavioral outcomes of compassion fatigue and burnout highlights the importance of understanding the differences before going further into the supporting literature.
Ms. Bosma, a certified professional in human resources and the deputy Title IX and human resources coordinator at Webster University in Webster Groves, Missouri, is pursuing graduate studies in the university’s Department of Professional Counseling.
Dr. Henning is an associate professor in the Webster University Department of Professional Counseling in Webster Groves, Missouri.
Law enforcement officers’ exposure to different types of trauma throughout their careers can lead to interpersonal problems; mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety; and negative coping mechanisms, such as nicotine and alcohol abuse.6 Also, officers must often suppress emotions and remain neutral in stressful situations. As a result, they may turn to destructive behaviors like alcoholism and violence.7
The unpredictable situations officers face can be emotionally charged and psychologically challenging. Thus, an officer regularly responding to traumatic situations, such as rape, sexual assault, violent crimes against children, and death, deals with secondary trauma. This routine exposure creates a vulnerability to compassion fatigue.8
One researcher evidenced that officers who investigated child abuse cases and possessed certain personality traits were more susceptible to compassion fatigue, more so than those who work with nonviolent crimes.9 Specifically, these officers experienced neuroticism, which produces emotions like depression and anxiety and may increase negative patterns of thought. Of further note, awareness of “emotionally sensitive” officers was important because they may be more susceptible to secondary traumatic stress.10
Officers with a history of primary trauma, such as childhood abuse, and those who work with victims of sexual assault or abuse have a higher risk of developing compassion fatigue and burnout.11 This likely relates to the finding that effects of trauma exposure carry a heavier and more personal weight on officers who experienced primary trauma in their lifetime.12
Negative Workplace Environment
The literature also noted a negative workplace environment and absence of peer support as risk factors. Lack of appreciation, an uninvolved supervisor, dissension among peers and administrators, and other workplace stressors contribute to compassion fatigue.13 Specifically, without work support or an outlet to debrief from strenuous work experiences, officers may turn to negative coping mechanisms. They exhibit pessimism, emotional distancing within their marital relationships,14 interpersonal communication issues caused by suppressed expressions that result from environmental peer pressure, impulsive decision making, and burnout.15
Symptoms and Identifiers
One expert suggested that officers who show signs of compassion fatigue also exhibit a decrease in empathy,16 which is needed among those who work with victims of sexual crimes and child abuse. Diminished empathy combined with other symptoms of compassion fatigue may negatively impact trust building between victims and investigators, thus, hindering or delaying fact-finding in an active investigation.17
Multiple studies evidenced the effects of compassion fatigue on decision-making and regulation of emotions.18 However, the literature is sparse on the relationship of decision-making or rash judgments/impulsivity and other cognitive impairments with compromised empathy. Impaired empathy combined with impulsivity and rash judgments during a crisis where force may be needed has the potential of creating a violent outcome where unnecessary force is used.
More research is needed to examine how empathy is impacted by compassion fatigue in the demographic of study. The profession requires significant amounts of empathy; therefore, law enforcement officers must have the training and innate personality traits to remain in productive service to the community when compassion fatigue symptoms present.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Several studies identified compassion fatigue as a precursor to PTSD.19 Common symptoms of compassion fatigue — which resemble those of PTSD — include dissociation, lack of concentration, irritability, hopelessness, avoidance, depression, anxiety, hyperarousal, dark humor, and disrupted sleep.20 Impaired judgment, thinking, and decision-making; diminished job performance; and skepticism of the public all presented among affected law enforcement officers.21
Much of the literature postulated personal relationship issues as an identifier of compassion fatigue; however, more research is needed to support a clear treatment plan.22 Specifically, officers who experienced compassion fatigue also had trouble with emotional intimacy, sexual intimacy, and communication in their relationships.
A correlation exists between relationship violence and compassion fatigue. Researchers identified a cross section of officers who experienced secondary traumatic stress, similar to PTSD, and evidenced more-violent marriages (i.e., domestic abuse, rageful and threatening arguments) than those of officers not experiencing PTSD symptoms.23 Further, law enforcement officers are at risk for disengagement from family members and spouses.24
Researchers examined the effects of high levels of stress on officers and their personal relationships. Results supported that the shared values of control and authority among law enforcement peers influenced how officers managed conflict within their personal realms and, in turn, hindered the expression of emotions within their marital relationships.25 Shift work and its effect on quality time spent with spouses were other contributors to discord in the relationships studied.26
A significant correlation exists between workplace stress and relationship dysfunction in the literature along with the revelation of vulnerable personality traits and emotionally charged investigations, which may result in vicarious trauma. With such knowledge, counselors who treat this demographic or provide job-readiness evaluations have useful tools and information to help them develop treatment.
“Mixed with the stress of the job … this trauma can produce symptoms of compassion fatigue, which impacts the emotional and physical well-being of officers and can exacerbate volatile situations or incidents.”
Also, researchers studied the stressors of law enforcement jobs and the benefits of counseling with early intervention. They found that early intervention with officers and their spouses helped remedy relationship stress caused by the behavioral outcomes of compassion fatigue. This study is relevant because of officers’ high-stress jobs and exposure to secondary trauma, which puts them at greater risk of developing the condition.27
Various tools used to measure compassion fatigue were revealed in the literature.
- Compassion Fatigue Self-Test (CFST)
- Compassion Satisfaction and Fatigue Test (CSFT)
- Compassion Fatigue Scale (CFS)
- Professional Quality of Life Scale (ProQOL)
- Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale (STSS)
- Impact of Event Scale (IES) and the revised version (IES-R)
- Trauma and Attachment Belief Scale (TABS)
- World Assumption Scale (WAS)28
The CFST was most commonly used.29 Researchers also employed the 10-item Perceived Stress Scale to evaluate the levels of reactivity to stress.30 This assessment allows further discovery of stress tolerance among officers seeking detective positions on high-stress investigations. The Mental Toughness Questionnaires 48 (MTQ48) was also noted as a valid assessment for evaluating “commitment, interpersonal confidence, confidence in abilities, life control, and emotional control.”31 This test helps identify vulnerable personality traits, such as neuroticism and emotional sensitivity.32 The assessments found in this literature review were used by counselors to inform methods and techniques and gauge the severity of symptoms.
Screening and psychological assessments help identify resiliency, personality traits, and job readiness for detectives entering predatory criminal investigations. Further, implementing assessments as part of the onboarding collaboration between counselors, supervisors, and administrators of law enforcement agencies may build the therapeutic relationship early in officers’ careers. Early intervention is key in preventing the onset of compassion fatigue.33
Recognition of Traits
Understanding personality traits susceptible to compassion fatigue facilitates the recognition of vulnerabilities. This can inform early intervention techniques when those vulnerabilities are detected during the onboarding and screening process of the officers. Further, recognizing the symptoms of compassion fatigue as a precursor to PTSD can assist law enforcement agencies with gaining support in the implementation of early intervention strategies.
According to the literature, a primary benefit of recognizing compassion fatigue is gaining a greater understanding of the predictors of officers’ mental health issues. With this knowledge and awareness, counselors can assist law enforcement agencies with educational programming to prepare officers for the rigor and stress of their jobs. Future collaborations between agencies and psychotherapists are encouraged throughout the empirical data as a viable approach to address the general mental health of law enforcement officers — specifically, identifying job readiness after a critical incident, compassion fatigue, burnout, and PTSD.34 In fact, researchers recommended mandatory counseling to normalize psychotherapy among officers and ward off any stigma that may come with seeking professional counseling.35
“The unpredictable situations officers face can be emotionally charged and psychologically challenging.”
Counselors aware of the challenges and vulnerabilities that officers face can make informed decisions on best practices in treatment.
Workplace and Peer Support
Multiple studies showed compassion fatigue as resulting from working in an unsupportive environment,36 defined as sparse supervisor support and pervasive peer pressure to be stress resistant. Conversely, prevalent supervisor, community, and peer support promoted compassion satisfaction — the antidote to compassion fatigue that develops when officers derive gratification from their service.37 Research has shown positive results from workplace support efforts in this regard.38
Officers also benefited from having a space within their organization to process stressful situations and debrief the day.39 Such an area available for clearing the mind of memories or traumatic experiences can help prevent compassion fatigue and emphasize compassion satisfaction.40
Researchers expressed the importance of providing training at the entry and supervisory levels for the treatment and prevention of compassion fatigue.41 Access to counseling and other support services in the workplace proved to be an advantage when managing emotional stress derived from trauma exposure.
Much of the literature postulated the benefits of supportive workplaces, adequate peer support, counseling of individuals about wellness, and rewards in promoting compassion satisfaction.42 According to researchers, including training programs that focus on compassion satisfaction coupled with training on compassion fatigue may limit the impact and prevalence of compassion fatigue among participating officers.43
Improved Agency Culture
The literature noted that law enforcement agency culture emphasized solidarity and hierarchical rewards, thus, contributing to a culture of silence when an officer struggled with compassion fatigue or job-related stressors.44 Clinical counseling practitioners can assist those most at risk for compassion fatigue by collaborating with police administrators in promoting compassion satisfaction.
Programs that recognize and celebrate the accomplishments and successes of officers are recommended in the literature.45 An increase in social support proved successful in helping to treat compassion fatigue symptoms.46 Social support can be provided through colleagues as well as close relationships. Promoting compassion satisfaction through workplace support, family psychoeducation, and programming proved promising in minimizing the effects of secondary trauma.
Counseling and Educational Programming
One expert postulated success in the area of wellness counseling, which addresses both the mind and body through cognitive therapy, psychoeducation, social skills training, relaxation and stress management training, behavioral change techniques, and self-care lifestyle instruction.47 Wellness counseling showed the most positive results when used as an early intervention technique.
“Understanding personality traits susceptible to compassion fatigue facilitates the recognition of vulnerabilities.”
Researchers evidenced that counselors influenced wellness by providing individual counseling sessions that taught wellness education and practiced cognitive behavioral therapy.48 Officers who participated in the study experienced increased wellness, which positively affected job satisfaction; this validates the need to address holistic health in high-stress workplaces like law enforcement agencies.
Departments can enhance officer wellness via workplace rewards or wellness support by offering discounted memberships to local health centers (e.g., gyms or recreational facilities). They can also provide wellness counseling through employee assistance programs and health insurance incentive programs, generally coordinated with human resources departments.
While research supported counseling and educational programming as effective responses to divert compassion fatigue, there needs to be more literature demonstrating the effects of early intervention or preventative counseling. Mental health professionals can collaborate with agencies to provide peer support training and prevention methods. Counselors are helpful collaborators on crisis intervention teams, and they can provide training on implementing trauma-informed practices (e.g., racialized interviewing for traffic stops of people of color, interview techniques for detectives working with victims of sexual assault).
There was a gap in the research regarding current educational programming within law enforcement agencies that collaborate with counselors to provide psychotherapy and wellness counseling. One study examined wellness counseling and showed its effectiveness; however, the empirical literature lacked longitudinal data on the long-term benefits of wellness programming within agencies and the benefits of prevention and early intervention.49
All but two studies illustrated the results of counseling and wellness interventions for law enforcement officers without differentiating male and female officers. More research on the effects of compassion fatigue among specific sexes would be beneficial to counselors, specifically those who specialize in gender studies and gender-specific issues.
Understanding the effects of impaired empathy, coupled with the impact that compassion fatigue has on decision-making and judgment, will inform counselors on the appropriate modalities, assessments, and counseling theories. With this understanding and knowledge, a holistic treatment plan can be devised that incorporates social justice and advocacy counseling techniques. The literature evidenced significant support for the pathway to compassion satisfaction in treating the symptoms of compassion fatigue. This is helpful in treatment planning for officers who may have mandatory counseling due to on-the-job violence or critical incidents or for those forced to take administrative leave.
Compassion fatigue symptoms are a detriment to the mental health of law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. However, agencies can have preventative or early intervention strategies in place if they recognize vulnerabilities in their personnel.
The symptoms are treatable, especially when identified as they first present.50 Classifying and addressing the symptoms as early as possible is key to protecting the mental health of officers in this high-stress helping profession and, in turn, better serving society.
“ … agencies can have preventative or early intervention strategies in place if they recognize vulnerabilities in their personnel.”
Ms. Bosma can be reached at LoriJBosma@gmail.com and Dr. Henning at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 John M. Violanti and Anne Gehrke, “Police Trauma Encounters: Precursors of Compassion Fatigue,” International Journal of Emergency Mental Health 6, no. 2 (Spring 2004): 75-80, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15298078/.
2 Susan M. Meffert et al., “Prospective Study of Police Officer Spouse/Partners: A New Pathway to Secondary Trauma and Relationship Violence?” PLOS ONE 9, no. 7 (July 2014):1-8, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0100663.
3 Noreen Tehrani, “Extraversion, Neuroticism and Secondary Trauma in Internet Child Abuse Investigators,” Occupational Medicine 66, no. 5 (July 2016): 403-407, https://doi.org/10.1093/occmed/kqw004.
4 Konstantinos Papazoglou, Mari Koskelainen, and Natalie Stuewe, “Exploring the Role of Compassion Satisfaction and Compassion Fatigue in Predicting Burnout Among Police Officers,” Open Journal of Psychiatry & Allied Sciences 9, no. 2 (2018): 107-112, https://doi.org/10.5958/2394-2061.2018.00020.4.
5 Meffert et al.
6 Holly Tanigoshi, Anthony P. Kontos, and Theodore P. Remley Jr., “The Effectiveness of Individual Wellness Counseling on the Wellness of Law Enforcement Officers,” Journal of Counseling & Development 86, no.1 (2008): 64-74, https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1556-6678.2008.tb00627.x.
7 George W. Burruss, Thomas J. Holt, and April Wall-Parker, “The Hazards of Investigating Internet Crimes Against Children: Digital Evidence Handlers’ Experiences with Vicarious Trauma and Coping Behaviors,” American Journal of Criminal Justice 43, no. 4 (October 2017): 433-447, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12103-017-9417-3.
8 Carolyn M. Burns et al., “The Emotional Impact on and Coping Strategies Employed by Police Teams Investigating Internet Child Exploitation,” Traumatology 14, no. 2 (2008): 20-31, https://doi.org/10.1177/1534765608319082; and Anja Greinacher et al., “Secondary Traumatization in First Responders: A Systematic Review,” European Journal of Psychotraumatology 10, no. 1 (January 2019), https://doi.org/10.1080/20008198.2018.1562840.
10 Ibid, 406.
11 Eric J. Lane et al., “Differences in Compassion Fatigue, Symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Relationship Satisfaction, Including Sexual Desire and Functioning, Between Male and Female Detectives Who Investigate Sexual Offenses Against Children: A Pilot Study,” International Journal of Emergency Mental Health 12, no. 4 (Fall 2010): 257-266, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21870384/; and David Turgoose et al., “Empathy, Compassion Fatigue, and Burnout in Police Officers Working with Rape Victims,” Traumatology 23, no. 2 (2017): 205-213, https://doi.org/10.1037/trm0000118.
12 Victoria M. Follette, Melissa M. Polusny, and Kathleen Milbeck, “Mental Health and Law Enforcement Professionals: Trauma History, Psychological Symptoms, and Impact of Providing Services to Child Sexual Abuse Survivors,” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 25, no. 3 (1994): 275-282, https://doi.org/10.1037/0735-7028.25.3.275.
13 J. Eugene Waters, “The Impact of Work Resources on Job Stress Among Correctional Treatment Staff,” Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling 20, no. 1 (October 1999): 26-34, https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2161-1874.1999.tb00138.x.
14 Randy Borum and Carol Philpot, “Therapy with Law Enforcement Couples: Clinical Management of the ‘High-Risk Lifestyle,’” The American Journal of Family Therapy 21, no. 2 (1993): 122-135, https://doi.org/10.1080/01926189308250911.
15 Papazoglou, Koskelainen, and Stuewe.
16 Charles R. Figley, “Compassion Fatigue: Psychotherapists’ Chronic Lack of Self Care,” Journal of Clinical Psychology 58, no. 11 (November 2002): 1433-1441, https://dx.doi.org/10.1002/jclp.10090.
17 Turgoose et al.
18 Wayne Anderson and Barbara Bauer, “Law Enforcement Officers: The Consequences of Exposure to Violence,” Journal of Counseling & Development 65, no. 7 (March 1987): 381-384, https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1556-6676.1987.tb00736.x; Konstantinos Papazoglou et al., “Police Compassion Fatigue,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, April 9, 2020, https://leb.fbi.gov/articles/featured-articles/police-compassion-fatigue; Brian E. Bride, Melissa Radey, and Charles R. Figley, “Measuring Compassion Fatigue,” Clinical Social Work Journal 35 (2007): 155-163, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10615-007-0091-7; Greinacher et al.; Lane et al.; Burruss, Holt, and Wall-Parker; Borum and Philpot; and Papazoglou, Koskelainen, and Stuewe.
19 Violanti and Gehrke; Tanigoshi, Kontos, and Remley; and Tehrani.
20 Sarah W. Craun and Michael L. Bourke, “Is Laughing at the Expense of Victims and Offenders a Red Flag? Humor and Secondary Traumatic Stress,” Journal of Child Sexual Abuse 24, no. 5 (July 2015): 592-602, https://doi.org/10.1080/10538712.2015.1042187; Papazoglou et al.; and Greinacher et al.
21 Papazoglou et al.
22 Lane et al.; Borum & Philpot; and Meffert et al.
23 Meffert et al.
24 Borum and Philpot.
26 Melissa Ellen Burnett, Isobel Sheard, and Helen St. Clair-Thompson, “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, no. 4 (May 2019): 383-400, https://doi.org/10.1080/15614263.2019.1617144.
27 Borum and Philpot.
28 Bride, Radey, and Figley.
30 Burnett, Sheard, and St. Clair-Thompson; and Sheldon Cohen, Tom Kamarck, and Robin Mermelstein, “A Global Measure of Perceived Stress,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 24 (December 1983): 385-396, https://doi.org/10.2307/2136404.
31 Burnett, Sheard, and St. Clair-Thompson, 388; and Peter Joseph Clough, Keith Earle, and D. Sewell, “Mental Toughness: The Concept and its Measurement,” in Solutions in Sport Psychology, ed. Ian M. Cockerill (Boston: Cengage, 2002), 32-45.
32 Tehrani, 406.
33 Papazoglou et al., 1-13.
34 Turgoose et al.
35 Anderson and Bauer.
36 Anderson and Bauer; Borum and Philpot; and Sarah W. Craun et al., “A Longitudinal Examination of Secondary Traumatic Stress Among Law Enforcement,” Victims & Offenders 9, no. 3 (2014): 299-316, https://doi.org/10.1080/15564886.2013.848828.
37 Papazoglou et al.; Burnett, Sheard, and St. Clair-Thompson; and Larissa Sherwood et al., “Identifying the Key Risk Factors for Adverse Psychological Outcomes Among Police Officers: A Systematic Literature Review,” Journal of Traumatic Stress 32, no. 5 (October 2019): 688-700, https://doi.org/10.1002/jts.22431.
39 Violanti and Gehrke.
40 Papazoglou, Koskelainen, and Stuewe.
41 Marné Ludick and Charles R. Figley, “Toward a Mechanism for Secondary Trauma Induction and Reduction: Reimagining a Theory of Secondary Traumatic Stress,” Traumatology 23, no. 1 (2017): 112-123, https://doi.org/10.1037/trm0000096.
42 Anderson and Bauer; Tanigoshi, Kontos, and Remley; and Papazoglou, Koskelainen, and Stuewe.
43 Burnett, Sheard, and St. Clair-Thompson.
44 Larissa Sherwood et al., “Identifying the Key Risk Factors for Adverse Psychological Outcomes Among Police Officers: A Systematic Literature Review,” Journal of Traumatic Stress 32, no. 5 (October 2019): 688-700, https://doi.org/10.1002/jts.22431.
45 Papazoglou et al.
47 Paul Granello, “Integrating Wellness Work into Mental Health Private Practice,” Journal of Psychotherapy in Independent Practice 1, no. 1 (2000): 3-16, https://doi.org/10.1300/J288v01n01_02.
48 Tanigoshi, Kontos, and Remley.