Empathy, Compassion Fatigue, and Burnout in Police Officers Working With Rape Victims


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Abstract

Police officers who work with victims of rape and sexual assault are exposed to severely traumatic material. This study aimed to investigate whether these specialist officers had developed compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, and burnout, and whether these variables were associated with trait and situational empathy, an important factor in retaining victim involvement within the prosecution process. The study also piloted a brief training intervention aimed at educating officers about compassion fatigue and ways of reducing and preventing it. A convenience sample of specialist police officers (N = 142) who work with victims of sexual assault completed measures of compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, and burnout, as well as two empathy measures, rating trait empathy and “in vivo” empathy in response to a video vignette. Cross-sectional analysis showed that longer-serving specialist officers had greater compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, and burnout, but that neither measure of empathy was related to compassion fatigue or secondary traumatic stress, although high burnout was related to low trait empathy. The training was well received, and pre- and posttest measures showed that officers’ knowledge of the constructs increased. Given the potential risks to their well being and work performance, officers would benefit from further support to cope with and prevent emotional distress. Higher empathy might protect against burnout. Longitudinal research is needed to better understand the relationships between empathy, compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, and burnout.

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