Compassion Fatigue and What First Responder Organizations Can Do

Continual exposure to acute and long-term stress can create a variety of health issues. Some, like compassion fatigue, are less well-known—but no less harmful to the people involved.

Though often associated with hospitals and emergency rooms, compassion fatigue is an issue for emergency services professionals as well, since they face pressures similar to those faced by doctors and nurses.

So, what does compassion fatigue look like?

The symptoms of compassion fatigue, per the Emergency Nurses Association (ENA), include:

  • Mental symptoms: Depression, anxiety, depersonalization, and “a lack of joy from daily activities”
  • Physical symptoms: A lack of appetite, sleep disturbances, compromised disease immunity, and ulcers
  • Professional symptoms: Impaired in-the-field decision-making, absenteeism, and workplace hostility

And 911 dispatchers appear to be especially affected by compassion fatigue and its effects.

15 percent of dispatchers report compassion fatigue as a side effect of their professional endeavors.

Tips for Responder Organizations Struggling with Compassion Fatigue

While there is no single answer to compassion fatigue, these strategies can help organizations provide better help to their people, many of whom may be struggling without even knowing it.

Don’t forget the power of positive recognition.

We all take pride in our work, and we all like to be recognized for a job well done. As simple as it sounds, taking steps to congratulate and appreciate your personnel can have a pronounced effect on overall morale.

Recognizing your people consistently, transparently, and earnestly can combat the feelings of being stressed and unappreciated that tend to cause compassion fatigue.

Head off traumatic work-related incidents.

You might consider this easier said than done, but collecting, evaluating, and acting upon situations that may create compassion fatigue is easier today than it’s ever been.

For example, early intervention systems are one tool that can be used to track the traumatic events known to contribute to compassion fatigue.

It is clearly unrealistic to keep dispatchers and others from experiencing traumatic workplace situations. But public safety organizations can improve in tracking and addressing exposures—to both physical hazards and emotionally traumatic incidents—before compassion fatigue sets in.

As we’ve seen in toxic materials exposure tracking, the simple act of keeping tabs on what your frontline personnel encounter can also keep the larger idea of preserving health—mental or otherwise—top-of-mind. Plus, the direct benefits of exposure tracking make it an effective way to help those struggling with this type of fatigue.

Talk about it.

  1. Educate your people on the realities of compassion fatigue.

As with some other mental health issues, employees may not even know they’re struggling, and others may not fully recognize the extent of their symptoms. In either event, giving people the terms and concepts they need to understand what they’re experiencing and what they need to watch for can be of immense help, alongside other early intervention practices.

  1. Acknowledge and support staff through traumatic calls and other workplace incidents.

Instead of allowing employees to deal with these issues themselves, give them a space to discuss what they’re going through.

  • Utilize employee assistance programs (EAPs) to target compassion fatigue. For example, employees at the University of Texas are offered scheduled talks on the effects of compassion fatigue, and managers are given advice on how to help combat it.
  • As one Biz Journals piece notes, a routine, scheduled, employees-only support group headed by a therapist can give your people space to talk about their issues in a place where they feel safe.

Promote self-care.

Self-care is more than a passing trend or a buzzword. It’s an important part of our new understanding of work-life balance and its ability to affect both the ways we work and the ways we live.

It’s also vital to counteracting compassion fatigue, burnout, and the related mental effects that high workplace stress can inflict upon us.

Obviously, self-care is hard to promote in the under-budgeted, under-scheduled world of dispatch response. Still, it will benefit your entire organization to do what you can.

This might mean:

  • Cutting back on mandatory overtime hours
  • Offering in-house massages, counseling sessions, or other perks
  • Identifying and addressing self-destructive behaviors
  • Or something altogether different, depending on your workplace and its employees’ needs.

Start with known morale deficiencies in your workplace and work from there.


Compassion fatigue is a serious issue that can impair employee lives and performance. As a dispatch agency, emergency medical organization, or other first response institution, looking for ways to reduce its effects (and thus increase the quality of your team’s working life) is a strong employee-first move that has potential to improve every area of the operation.

While no single solution—or combination thereof—will prevent compassion fatigue in such an emotionally challenging industry, the organizations that take time to address the problem now are those most likely to successfully mitigate its worst effects.

Want to effectively track events that can lead to compassion fatigue?

Posted on Aug 5, 2021