When Caring Hurts: Compassion Fatigue in Educational Settings

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Mental Health | Work/Life Balance
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Dr. Molly A. Mistretta is a professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs at Slippery Rock State University in Pennsylvania

Dr. Alison DuBois is clinical counseling faculty at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania and president of The Mindful Mind, LLC.

Burnout and Compassion Fatigue

Educators responding to high levels of student needs often find their emotional, cognitive, and physical storage becomes depleted rather quickly. Add in the effects of a two-year pandemic with continuously increasing pressures and they experience teacher burnout.

During the pandemic, educators shifted between in-person teaching and remote learning, raised crucial awareness about issues such as racial discrimination and student hunger and homelessness, and became caught in the politicization of pandemic precautions. Therefore, high levels of burnout are unsurprising.

Burnout is a chronic state of feeling overworked, overwhelmed, and exhausted. Once someone is experiencing burnout, they are more likely to develop compassion fatigue. What is compassion fatigue exactly? Compassion fatigue arises from frequent and/or intense exposure to trauma.

Educators and staff can be exposed to trauma in two ways. The first is bearing witness to traumatic events on the job, and many argue that working through the pandemic has been traumatic in its own right. The second is working directly with others who have experienced trauma, like the estimated 50% of students who have experienced an adverse childhood experience. This is defined as vicarious trauma.

The impact of teacher burnout is garnering national attention, as many are considering leaving the profession. Before the pandemic, one in six teachers considered leaving the profession. Now that figure is one in four. More than two-thirds of higher education faculty report struggling with increased workloads and diminished work-life balance, while more than half are considering retiring or changing careers.

Fixing the Problem

To address these concerns, significant interventions are needed for individuals as well as large-scale systemic change. Education leadership needs to closely examine systemic issues such as appropriate pay, individual workloads, available student/educator supports, and effective supervision. Additionally, leadership can also address individual needs by promoting work environments that foster social connections among staff and raising awareness regarding teacher burnout and compassion fatigue. Individual educators can develop their own resources that support resilience when work becomes difficult.

Self-care enables you to more effectively access social resources, employ better decision-making, and experience a more positive functioning level. Self-awareness is a critical skill in helping us accurately identify when we are experiencing distress and recognize when we need support. Self-care isn’t difficult; it just takes discipline. The key to effective self-care is making it a proactive, preventive practice—engaging in consistent activities that restore a sense of balance and peace before the exposure to life’s stressors and a student’s trauma stories affect us. Our list is not exhaustive—there are many different ways to alleviate stress and anxiety—but we will include some of our favorites:

Self-Care Plans

Self-care plans compel us to proactively engage in constructive behaviors during times of stress or crisis. Self-care plans focus on self-reflection by identifying positive aspects of our lives where we can find support:

  • Physical support: exercise, healthy eating, getting enough rest and water
  • Psychological support: taking breaks from social media/technology, keeping a journal, reading
  • Emotional support: having a confidant with whom to vent, taking coffee breaks with friends, seeing a counselor
  • Spiritual support: engaging in faith communities, practicing mindfulness/meditation
  • Relational support: nurturing close relationships with family/friends
  • Professional support: engaging in effective supervision and professional development

Mindfulness

A mindfulness practice can help us “de-clutter” our minds creating space for us to pause and breathe. When we focus too much on the past or future, our anxiety amps up. Mindfulness exercises help ground us in the present and connect our minds with our bodies. These exercises have been shown to improve our cognition and memory, in addition to regulating our emotions and impulse control. Mindfulness can improve our outlook by increasing hormones like serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins needed for regulating our mood. There are a number of physiological benefits too, such as reducing high blood pressure, inflammatory conditions like arthritis or asthma, and improving sleep. Apps such as Calm, Headspace, and Insight Timer can be useful tools to keep you engaged in the practice.

Journaling

Words help us to inform, connect, share, and process our thoughts and feelings. They help us to create a sense of meaning in understanding our life experiences. Journaling can help us reflect on our perceptions of a given problem, allowing us to “unpack” our challenges and provide us with a more objective view of them.

Humor

Humor can also allow us to create distance with our problems. Humor allows us to change distressing emotional states and re-frame our thought patterns using context and perspective. Humor allows us to reduce the psychological power that a traumatic situation possesses and connects us with others who may also be experiencing the same thing. It allows us to alleviate and release strong negative emotions that could be pent up so that we can constructively address emotional conflicts. Humor also enables us to build a psychological buffer against our toughest days.

Spend Some Time Outside

Green exercise is supported by an increasing body of research. It involves spending time in natural environments and has been shown to effectively regulate our states of emotional and physiological arousal. Getting out amongst the trees helps us exercise longer and more efficiently.

Self-care Matters for Teacher Burnout and Compassion Fatigue

To close, we hope this has helped you to start to think about ways to become a healthier, more resilient educator. Increased resilience will enable you to deal with the pressures associated with your work. Like any habit, a self-care routine will take time and effort to integrate into your lifestyle and professional practice. However, the effort is worth the results—for you, your colleagues, and your students!

 

To learn more about the impact of burnout and compassion fatigue on faculty, give our webinar a watch.