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Compassion Fatigue a Concern for Public Information Officers Too

Posted By Matt Coppin , Wednesday, April 15, 2020
Updated: Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of blog posts from recent graduates of FEMA’s Master Public Information Officer course. They are sharing insights from their research projects as part of a partnership with NAGC. 


Nurses, paramedics and firefighters are among the caring professions often associated with the term compassion fatigue. Though what about the role of public information officer?  


PIOs routinely witness traumatic events including natural disasters, large-scale social unrest, property loss and loss of life. A PIO must always maintain a professional and empathetic appearance while handling the stress of the job. However, does prolonged exposure to these types of events impact the delivery of messaging to the public? What impact does the PIO’s ardent sense of responsibility to the job have on their personal lifeThese questions were researched in conjunction with the Master PIO program at FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg, Maryland.  


Compassion fatigue is defined as the display of chronic stress resulting from helping others. Most simply it is “the cost of caring” and has long been associated with caring professions such as doctors, veterinarians and even lawyersIt can occur when an individual experiences a personal transformation as a result of being exposed to the traumatic stress of another person. Despite similar sounding terms, such as burnout or PTSD, compassion fatigue is a unique condition resulting from secondary exposure where individuals are impacted by the stress of those they are helping.  


Research was conducted to examine the possible impact compassion fatigue has on PIOs. A survey was created and disseminated to ask communication professionals about the signs and symptoms of the condition. The survey also collected demographic data and information about the respondent’s role within their organization. Significant data analysis was conducted to determine correlations and statistical significance of the survey results. 


Several survey indicators pointed to clear signs of compassion fatigue. These survey statements included “My mind returns to difficult events I’ve experienced as a PIO” in which over 65% of respondents answered “sometimes,” “often,” or “very often.” Also, more than 79% of respondents answered they are at least sometimes “overwhelmed by my workload.” Perhaps one of the most suggestive responses came to the survey statement “I work too hard” in which over 96% of respondents answered “sometimes,” “often,” or “very often.”  


Despite numerous clear signs of compassion fatigue, no definitive link could be established between compassion fatigue and PIOs. The limiting factor was found to be the inability to satisfy the time component associated with compassion fatigue. Meeting this time component would require monitoring PIOs responses over a broader sampling of time.  The research did indicate a strong possibility that PIOs are impacted by compassion fatigue in the same way as other caring professions.  


Survey results suggested changes be made within the PIO industry. Those unfamiliar with compassion fatigue measured 48.2%, while 80% of respondents reported never receiving training about how their role as a PIO may affect their mental health. It is recommended that mindfulness training as to the signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue be a standard practice in field of public information.  


The results also suggested a change in the PIO culture where managers should be held accountable for the mental health of their staff. Recognizing the 96% of respondents who feel they work too hard or the 79% that feel overwhelmed should be an organizational goal. In many instances, work culture brands career stress as a personal issue and not an issue for management to address. Ownership of the mental well-being of employees is a key component of having highly productive and lasting team members. Reducing a PIOs workload, arranging for mandatory time away from electronic devices, and providing a family-first environment would reduce the negative qualities of compassion fatigue. 


Signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue were found to not only impact the PIO personally, but their ability to perform the job. Recognizing and taking steps to address these signs, will allow PIOs to effectively deliver timely, accurate and well-messaged information to target audiencesAs the responsibilities of the PIO continue to expand, having a sound understanding of compassion fatigue will only increase the organizational value of this position.  


Matt Coppin is the Lieutenant of Community Health and External Affairs for the Metro West Fire Protection District located in St. Louis County, Missouri. He is a graduate of Maryville University with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration and Communications. Matt holds several certifications and professional credentials including Master Public Information Officer from FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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