by Alan Flora
Some days are better than others, that’s just the way life goes. But so much of our happiness and success is determined by our daily attitudes. One person might begin each morning with enthusiasm, ready to take on the world and make great things happen. Meanwhile, another person is like, “Meh, I’m not feeling it.” Which of them is most likely to be satisfied with their day? Which one will positively influence other people, such as their coworkers or family? If you were a crime victim, which person would you want to investigate your case?
It seems simple enough that we should always stay positive, but that’s easier said than done. If your job requires you to be there for others in times of need, it can be emotionally exhausting to share their pain day after day and year after year. Even if you started your career with an open heart, you might have closed it off a bit over time as a way to cope with all the hurt you’ve seen. Maybe that’s what you did to protect yourself from the vicarious trauma you were experiencing. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; such coping skills can be helpful if you maintain a healthy balance. But if you no longer feel empathy for others, you could have crossed over into a state of compassion fatigue. How can you put heart and soul into your work when you’ve built a wall around that heart?
Compassion fatigue is similar to burnout, but they are not the same thing. The term burnout is commonly understood to mean being tired of something and no longer getting satisfaction from it. One reaches a point of physical or emotional exhaustion and feels as if the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. Burnout is more generalized and tends to be about a job or a relationship and the routines associated with it. It can occur in any career. The good news is that burnout can usually be managed by taking a vacation or finding a more satisfying job.
Compassion fatigue is when one loses the ability to empathize with people or grows apathetic towards the victims or citizens they serve. It tends to occur in helping professions such as health care, child services workers, or law enforcement officers. In layman’s terms, one might shut down their feelings if they have seen too much of other people in pain. Responding to victims in crisis becomes less about making emotional connections and more about going through the motions. The old phrase, “phoning it in,” comes to mind. Like vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue can affect the way one views the world. It can increase cynicism and mistrust and damage one’s relationships. Compassion fatigue can be cumulative over time, so it will probably take longer to handle than burnout, but you can overcome it.
Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist, and this article is not a means to diagnose you or a coworker. It is merely a conversation starter in which I’m sharing personal experiences and observations related to burnout and compassion fatigue. My goal is to make you aware of these terms and to contemplate the distinctions between them. If you believe that you are experiencing anything described here, please reach out to your employee assistance program or mental health provider.
By nature, I’m a very positive person who gets joy from helping others, and I’m always on the lookout for an excellent adventure. As a teen, I was an Eagle Scout and extremely patriotic, so it wasn’t surprising that my path led to law enforcement. When I started my career as a uniformed officer in 1992, I was the stereotypical rookie who never wanted to go home. We rode one-to-a-car at the Sheriff’s Office, so when my scheduled day would end, I would often hop in with a friend on the opposite shift and work half of the night with him. He appreciated the backup, and I got more thrills. The sergeants didn’t care; I was free labor. They even joked that if they were to put a bed in the office, I would never go home. They were probably right. Several months passed before a wise Lieutenant called me in and “suggested” that I pace myself and only work shifts assigned to me. It hurt my feelings at the time, even if it was excellent advice. Since I was no longer allowed to work for free in my off-duty hours, I took on a lot of secondary employment, providing security at bars, hotels, ballgames, and even guarding a jewelry store. It was common for me to spend seven days per week in uniform. I loved every minute of it, right up until I realized I was bored out of my mind.
At about the five-year mark, I was burned out and no longer satisfied with my job. Instead of being positive, I was focusing on all of the things I didn’t like. I found fault in our equipment, the supervisors, and the low pay. Putting on the uniform I previously loved became a dreaded chore. In my state, we must put in thirty years for full retirement benefits, and suddenly I couldn’t imagine getting to ten. I got a reprieve in 1998 when I took a position at the state agency where I still work today. In a heartbeat, my burnout issues went away, or so I thought. The fact is that I hadn’t learned how to manage it, I just got a temporary free pass.
My first assignment as a state agent was assisting local agencies with crimes such as rapes, robberies, homicides, and drug offenses. In the rural county where I lived, the local Sheriff’s Office had less than twenty employees, including the Sheriff, a Detective, Patrol, Jailers, and Dispatch. One well-trained investigator could make a huge impact there, so my services were always in need. There were several communities like that in the region where I worked, and it was very gratifying to work alongside them when they called. If a small agency with limited resources had a significant event such as a homicide, five or six of us would go there and get them through the crisis. My phone frequently rang at all hours of the day and night, and I loved it. Getting a call at 2 A.M. was a rush, especially if I had to drive a couple of hours to manage a crime scene. I felt important and needed, and I couldn’t get enough of it. The state agency strictly monitored the hours worked so that agents wouldn’t accrue too much overtime, but we were rarely in the same building as our supervisors. If I put in sixty hours in a week, but only submitted forty on my timesheet, all I got from the boss was a pat on the back for excellent time-management. After a few years, I was back in burnout mode. The dream job that was going to fix all my problems somehow became the source of them. I was hyper-focused on the things I didn’t like about my agency, such as our equipment, the supervisors, and the low pay. It was a lot like the burnout from my Sheriff’s Office experience, but this time there was an added element. I also became extremely frustrated with drug offenders.
There was a time when suspects who were addicted to drugs fascinated me. They would tell sad stories of how pills, cocaine, or methamphetamine ruined their lives, and I would listen with great empathy. It broke my heart to hear their tales, but I believed I could help them get clean and remove the source of their woes from the streets. They truly touched my heart, up to a point. I could comfortably interview rapists, murderers, and child molesters because they usually went away, and I didn’t see them again. However, the drug addicts kept popping back up, and their sad stories never changed. Not only that, but it seemed that the stories were rarely true. Things got to where I couldn’t be in a room with a drug offender for five minutes without getting angry. It was odd because I used to feel sorry for them, but the time came when there was no more room for them in my heart. Fortunately, I found a lifeline. No, it wasn’t a psychologist. In late 2002 there was an opening in my agency for a fire/arson investigator. No one else wanted the job, and I liked the idea of investigating burned buildings because they wouldn’t tell me lies. Once again, I avoided dealing with burnout, and what was probably a bad case of compassion fatigue.
I want to tell you that after that first decade, I figured things out. But the truth is there were a couple more cycles before I recognized and accepted responsibility for what was happening. I joined the Computer Crimes Unit in 2007 and became an ICAC investigator. No one else wanted the job, and I had to escape the boredom of investigating fires. I remember the ICAC Commander warning me that there was a high burnout rate, and he asked for a three-year commitment. My answer was that I would do five and then move to something else because I knew my limits. The irony is the job with the highest burnout rate was the one I ultimately couldn’t leave.
True to what the ICAC Commander had told me, the workload was high and after about three years I was looking for my next option. But I did it differently that time; instead of just focusing on what I didn’t like, I made a list of the good things. The list was pretty impressive. I saw the many benefits of my ICAC assignment and felt blessed to be a part of the mission. I always liked helping others, and it occurred to me how cool it was that I was getting paid to do it. That change in perspective gave me a greater appreciation for my agency and all it had done to support me over the years. The craziest part was that the more I focused on my blessings, the more I seemed to receive. I can honestly say that the success I’ve found late in my career came from learning to be grateful for what I already had.
ICAC work has tested me for sure, but nothing else has given me such satisfaction and purpose. I’ve learned to focus on the positive rather than dwell on the negatives. I’ve also learned the importance of vacations and a life outside of my job. I credit a lot of that to the outstanding peer support among ICAC investigators. The people I work with are outstanding human beings who also see how fortunate we are to be a part of this mission. It’s a difficult job, but we all get that, so it’s okay to say when something hurts. It took me a lot of years to figure that out. I became a SHIFT wellness instructor so that I could share what I have learned, and hopefully to help others walk a smoother path than the one I took to get here.
Alan is the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of the Computer Crimes Unit of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (NCSBI). Since 2007, SAC Flora has been assigned to the SBI Computer Crimes Unit as part of the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force. Since 2015, he has served as the Commander of the North Carolina ICAC Task Force.