The Impact of Compassion Fatigue on First Responders

The Impact of Compassion Fatigue on First Responders

By: Diane Harris, ENP

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Many hazards are associated with first responders, but the risk of compassion fatigue is often overlooked or minimized. Merriam-Webster defines compassion fatigue as “the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time.”

Compassion fatigue is common in those who care for others, including first responders such as telecommunicators, officers, firefighters, paramedics – basically anyone who signs up to help people during the worst moments of their lives.

Where burnout is exhaustion, both physically and mentally, due to overwhelming stress and workload, compassion fatigue is an overload from exposure to trauma. It is also known as secondary or vicarious trauma, often caused from being emotionally exhausted due to this prolonged exposure to traumatic events. Secondary traumatic stress compounds over time until you no longer have a reserve of compassion, empathy, or emotional responses to share with those you’re trying to help. In order to understand the impact, we first need to recognize the signs.

Signs of Compassion Fatigue

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion despite getting enough rest and time between shifts.
  • Feeling numb or unable to feel empathy in personal and professional settings.
  • Increased irritability, becoming more cynical, mood swings and being hypervigilant – both on and off the job.
  • Feeling left out or not part of things going on around you at work and in your personal life.
  • Blaming yourself for not doing enough to help those who need you.
  • Intrusive thoughts or nightmares about not doing enough or being unable to help in traumatic events.
  • Physical symptoms, in addition to disrupted sleep patterns, including appetite changes, nausea, more frequent headaches, anxiety, lack of motivation or focus, irritability, sadness or depression, and even dizziness.

Telecommunicator Indirect and Cumulative Stress

The impact of call after call dealing with trauma or situations that may end without a resolution is hard to process. Many times, telecommunicators don’t have time to digest and resolve the call internally before moving on to the next emergency. The indirect stress of leaving the problem hanging in the dispatcher’s mind adds to the cumulative stress of emergency calls one after the other – sometimes even simultaneously!

All the training and preparation that telecommunicators receive for handling emergency calls may not always include training for handling stress and secondary trauma. Within the last decade, studies have been conducted on post-traumatic stress specific to 9-1-1 telecommunicators. Those studies have found secondary trauma, on a cumulative, sustained basis, can lead to compassion fatigue and secondary post-traumatic stress disorder.

Impact on Those Around You

Most first responders want to help others. But helping others, over and over, dealing with trauma, grief, rage, and every other intense emotion regularly, quickly dulls the shine on the desire to help. Research in 2019 asked family members of telecommunicators about the impact of their job as a dispatcher, and 96.4% stated they noticed mood changes in the 9-1-1 telecommunicator. The study also found the dispatchers with longer tenure had the most pronounced mood changes, specifically those with over ten years on the job.

It is important to understand the impact of compassion fatigue on first responders and ensure they have the tools, skills, and outlets to work through their emotions. It’s also important to understand what secondary trauma and stress can do to dispatchers directly and to those around them.

Coping with Compassion Fatigue

  • Find a balance between home and work and take time off when possible.
  • Self-care should be a top priority, including getting enough sleep, eating healthy, exercising regularly, maintaining healthy relationships, and doing things you find enjoyable.
  • Listen to your body and know when the trauma, stress, negativity, and workload are getting to you. Try to take a break to walk around, or at least pause and breathe to let some stress dissipate.
  • Be grateful for what you have, remembering the importance of those around you, and reminding yourself how important you are to them.
  • Focus on the parts of your job you can control, not how others feel or react. Don’t blame yourself for a less than perfect outcome. Give yourself some time to decompress, then use constructive criticism of your decisions and actions.
  • Stay calm and present in the moment instead of falling into a negativity spiral with coworkers.
  • Know what you’re feeling is valid and not your fault. Remember, you do not need to handle this alone.
  • Seek the services of trained professionals to listen and provide treatment options.

Care Buckets

Think of it this way, we all have a bucket. We empty the bucket by pouring out empathy, concern, compassion, and understanding. But we must refill the bucket through self-care, sleep, exercise, eating healthy, having fun with family and friends, enjoying hobbies, remembering the good moments, playing with a pet, and all the positive things we find joyful.

If we empty our bucket more quickly than we refill it, the lack of empathy and understanding starts to show in negativity, cynicism, and jaded critiques. Initially, those negatives may not seem harmful, but they impact our physical and mental health, as well as impact those around us.

Every first responder will find their bucket empty at some point, probably more than once. The trick is to recognize it and find ways to refill the bucket, including getting help when needed. Most importantly, know that it is ok for the helpers to seek help too!


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