compassion fatigue

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Published on December 9, 2019 by First Responder Wellness

For first responders, compassion is simply a part of the job.  Individuals drawn to careers such as firefighters, police officers, paramedics, and emergency medical personnel are usually seeking a way to be of service to their community, and tend to find satisfaction in helping others.  While this kind of work can be incredibly rewarding, it also comes with heavy emotional burden. Compassion fatigue, while not an officially recognized mental illness, is a condition that occurs in individuals who become consumed with other people’s pain and trauma during the process of assisting them.  It is most commonly found in first responders, but may also develop in social workers, critical care nurses, hospice care providers, and mental health care providers.  

Although compassion fatigue is not considered a diagnosis, it can be a sign of serious mental health issues to come, such as the development of secondary-traumatic stress disorder, or STSD.  The term compassion fatigue is sometimes used interchangeably with STSD, but many experts define compassion fatigue as a combination of secondary traumatization and burnout syndrome. It is important for individuals at risk of this condition and their loved ones to be aware of the signs, as well as how this compassion fatigue may develop into even more serious mental health disorders.


The primary cause of compassion fatigue is working in a profession in which you are constantly witnessing and attempting to ease the pain of others.  Additionally, certain environmental factors put some workers at more of a risk of compassion fatigue than others. A major transition in the workplace, such as a change in leadership, can create extra stress in already high-stress job and make burnout more likely to occur in members of the team.  It is also important for first responders to feel that they have close bonds with their team members, and that they have someone to talk to when they are having an especially rough day. Individuals in these high-stress service jobs who are suffering from a lack of human connection are more likely to develop compassion fatigue as well as many other mental health issues.  First responders also need to work harder than most to maintain a work/life balance, and are more likely to develop compassion fatigue if they don’t have a peaceful and supportive homelife. 

Signs & Symptoms

The symptoms of compassion fatigue are often hard to recognize, both for the individual experiencing them as well as their family and coworkers.  Working in emergency situations and high-pressure environments requires a certain amount of emotional suppression, but this habitual tendency to always appear calm and collected can prevent some people from receiving the help they need.  Some signs to look out for include increased isolation, fatigue, poor sleep, mood swings, apathy, and substance abuse. Physical symptoms can also be a sign of compassion fatigue, such as chronic pain, stomachaches, headaches, or a cold that never seems to go away, possibly indicating a weakened immune system.

The most noticeable signs of compassion fatigue for coworkers and family members often involve a sudden change in performance at work or neglecting home responsibilities.  Some people with compassion fatigue react by giving up their once-idealistic perspective, and developing a sense of apathy that causes them to stop trying. This may result in poor work performance because the individual begins to believe that their efforts do no good.  On the other side of the spectrum, some individuals with compassion fatigue become obsessed with helping others to the point that their family obligations and personal care take the back burner. These individuals may neglect their relationships and even their personal hygiene to put all aspects of their job before anything else in their life. 

Compassion Fatigue and Substance Abuse

While there is a lack of research on compassion fatigue, as well as its relationship to substance use disorders, most experts agree that individuals in professions that put them at a high risk of developing compassion fatigue are also at a heightened risk of addiction.  Compassion fatigue, burnout, and secondary-traumatic stress disorder are all conditions brought on by excess stress and unresolved, intense emotions. Many people who experience high levels of stress and anxiety as a result of their job turn to substances like drugs and alcohol to numb their feelings and provide them with temporary relief.  In many professions, drinking is very much a part of the culture of ignoring painful emotions and attempting to cope. Unfortunately, this pattern often leads to addiction, which only brings more pain and suffering for the individual and their family.  

The First Responders Treatment Program at Simple Recovery uses trauma-informed strategies to cater to the unique needs of law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders with substance use disorders and co-occurring mental illnesses.  We recognize that first responders encounter job-specific barriers and obstacles that come with the culture of their careers, and that existing stigmas may make seeking help for addiction and mental health issues especially difficult. Addiction does not have to mean the end of your career or a lifetime of struggling with your health and relationships.  By taking a holistic approach to treatment and addressing the underlying causes of addiction, Simple Recovery makes it possible for first responders to regain control of every aspect of their wellbeing. First responders dedicate their lives to protecting their community, and at Simple Recovery’s First Responder Treatment Program, we believe in dedicating our time and expertise to helping these compassionate individuals find a path to lasting sobriety and mental wellness.  If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, call us now at 888-743-0490.