There is a correlation to what’s known as both compassion fatigue and burnout because of the traumatic nature of police working environments.  It’s why we should address both conditions in unison to understand the effects of chronic or prolonged stressors of those who commit to police work.  This combined with any number of other life stressors such as caring for others, grieving a death of a loved one or managing the daily pressures of a young family can lead to burn out or compassion fatigue.

Constant exposures to situations where people are in distress, angry, volatile or violent requires the ability to respond rather than react however at the same time our bodies respond unconsciously with moving into the flight, fight, freeze response as a result of the release of adrenaline and cortisol. This is our bodies natural way of protecting itself and preparing for danger however policing environments may cause this response to become exaggerated by way of triggers from similar dangerous or distressing situations

Over time you may find your response moves into reactions which may develop into preconceived thoughts or feelings or becoming either hardened to distressing sights or more emotional. This occurs when compassion is overloaded and a sense of feeling nothing or angry towards people or situations. Workload, lack of sleep, poor diet and overwhelm can manifest as burnout or compassion fatigue which if left untreated may lead to post traumatic stress disorder. This is why it’s vital to be aware of the feelings in your body and to be present and mindful of changes in attitudes or beliefs. If this is the case it’s important to address these changes or seek further social or medical support.

Below are a number of signs and symptoms of burn out and compassion fatigue;  

  • Thoughts may become focused on traumatic incidents you attended at work
  • Confidence and self-esteem levels drop and beliefs may become negative regarding work performance or perceived work performance by others
  • Apathy and a general feeling of overwhelm
  • Feelings of exhaustion and overwhelmed by workload 
  • Starting tasks that are left uncompleted
  • Feelings of being disengaged or disconnected to activities and others
  • Avoidance of the workplace and/or places 
  • Change in appetite or eating habits
  • Increase in alcohol or illicit substances
  • Sleep disturbance including difficulties falling asleep or getting back to sleep and intrusive nightmares 
  • Health issues such as skin rashes, indigestion, sweating and headaches
  • Feelings of resentment and irritability
  • Loss of interest in activities which once gave enjoyment
  • Angry outbursts or feelings of loss of control
  • Feelings of guilt, sadness, or remorse for things out of your control
  • Lack of interest in intimacy or feeling numb
  • Poor concentration and memory difficulties
  • Self-blame or feelings of inadequacy

Burnout and compassion fatigue can develop slowly over time which means it’s often family or close friends who notice subtle changes.  Therefore, it’s important to maintain close and healthy relationships as well as a strong network of work colleagues who can be of support during times of added workplace stress including times when police are working on traumatic incidents, protracted investigations, or surveillance.  It’s also vital to maintain a healthy work/life balance and to continue to take time out, regular breaks when annual leave is due and to focus on activities that give respite from the stressors of working environments.  

What helps;
  • Find and maintain a healthy work/life balance 
  • Communicate with colleagues, family and friends (have a good support network)
  • Connect with your spirituality and beliefs
  • Maintain a regular sleep pattern and make this a priority
  • Play sport, start a daily walk, or develop an exercise routine 
  • See your GP for an annual check up
  • Seek counselling from a good therapist who understands police culture and the nature of policing environments including trauma informed care
  • Consider making a change in working duties or environment
  • Take a break and have time out to relax and recharge or to connect with family
  • Find a yoga class and learn meditation
  • Assess your diet and make changes if necessary
  • Practice gratitude and write a daily journal
  • Spend time in nature or with an animal or pet
  • Attend a residential retreat or program to rest and recharge.

If the feelings and thoughts associated with burnout or compassion fatigue persist there are several avenues to seeking support, attending your GP at the first instance and discussing the issues around work life balance will assist your doctor to assess what type of support may be required.  A referral via a mental health plan is an option to commence a series of counselling sessions preferably with a suitably trauma informed clinician who understands police culture.

Otherwise, contacting your state jurisdiction Employee Assistance Program can also assist with counselling or making an appointment to speak with your state chaplaincy service may be helpful.