Compassion fatigue following the September 11 terrorist attacks: a study of secondary trauma among New York City social workers

Int J Emerg Ment Health. Spring 2004;6(2):57-66.


Experience suggests that individuals working in the caring and psychotherapeutic professions are among those to provide mental health services to disaster victims suffering from psychological trauma following catastrophic events. Yet, few studies have focused on the emotional exhaustion from working with such clients, referred to as compassion fatigue (CF) in this study, and how CF differs from other occupational hazards, such as secondary trauma (ST) and job burnout. In the present study, we used recently validated scales to predict ST and job burnout related to providing services to those affected by the World Trade Center (WTC) attacks. Our study data were based on a random survey of 236 social workers living in New York City (NYC), over 80% of which reported being involved in post-WTC disaster counseling efforts. Our analyses indicated that controlling for demographic factors, years of counseling, and personal trauma history, ST was positively associated with WTC recovery involvement (p <. 001) and negatively associated with having a supportive work environment (p < . 01). In contrast, job burnout was negatively associated with having a supportive work environment (p < .01), but not associated with WTC involvement or WTC counseling efforts. We discuss these results in light of future conceptual and empirical research needs.

MeSH terms

  • Empathy*
  • Fatigue / epidemiology
  • Fatigue / etiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Life Change Events
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • New York City / epidemiology
  • Occupational Diseases / epidemiology
  • Occupational Diseases / etiology*
  • Social Work / statistics & numerical data*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / etiology*
  • Terrorism / psychology*
  • Time Factors