UMN App Helps First Responders Manage Compassion Fatigue

An app designed by University of Minnesota researchers is helping first responders manage the emotional and physical exhaustion of their work that can lead to personal burnout, reduced feelings of empathy, and poorer job performance.

The First Responder Toolkit, created by College of Education and Human Development researchers in collaboration with the Minnesota Department of Health, is an interactive platform for managing compassion fatigue designed for use by emergency physicians, mental health providers, medical technicians, firefighters, police officers, and other professionals whose roles involve significant emotional investments.

The app was developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic with help from CEHD’s Educational Technology Innovations team and licensing support from UMN Technology Commercialization. It is now being used in all 50 states, said Tai Mendenhall, PhD, associate professor of family social science and principal investigator on the research team behind the app.

“The First Responder Toolkit’s widespread usage demonstrates the pressing need among responders of all types for resources to help manage their personal and professional well-being through multiple forms of self-monitoring and self-care,” Mendenhall said. “Generally, people in the ‘helping professions’—mental health providers, biomedical providers, EMTs, etc.—are very good at helping other people. But we are not very good at taking care of ourselves.”

Figuring out ways to prevent, mitigate, and promote recovery from compassion fatigue is essential not only to the health and well-being of first responders, but to the people they serve. The condition can increase the risk of first responders missing important cues or questions (such as those regarding medications or suicidality), working ineffectively in teams, conducting poor documentation (such as assessment and triage sequences), and making medical errors.

The First Responder Toolkit helps users pay attention to their own physical, emotional, and social well-being and limit the strains that stress can place on their marital, familial, and social relationships. The simple, straightforward design of the toolkit allows for first responders to use it in the field, providing an efficient way for them to consider their personal well-being at the present moment and to monitor it over time.

Included in the app are self-care tips and resources, space for self-reflection, and information about how to access immediate help if needed. The app also recommends whether and how users should—or should not—proceed with deployment work based on their assessment scores related to compassion fatigue and trauma risk factors.

“Across Minnesota, overworked and overwhelmed responders are hearing the stories of anger, frustration, grief, and loss from those they serve—which puts them at a high risk for compassion fatigue,” said Nancy Carlson, behavioral health program coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Health’s Office of Emergency Preparedness. “Compassion fatigue negatively impacts not only the mental and emotional health of our responders, but also their professional functioning and ability to continue to protect the health and safety of Minnesota residents.”

Listen to Mendenhall discuss the First Responder Toolkit on Minnesota Public Radio’s All Things Considered.