5 ways to overcome compassion fatigue in higher education

Unaddressed compassion fatigue leads to anxiety, trouble concentrating and desire to leave one's position
Laurie Cure, CEO of Innovative Connections
Laurie Cure, CEO of Innovative Connections

As the world continues to experience rising levels of COVID cases, healthcare workers, teachers, parents, administrators and others are feeling the heavy weight of burnout and compassion fatigue.

While we don’t normally think of college educators as the most susceptible to compassion fatigue, the demands of the field often lead to similar outcomes as those in healthcare.

Faculty and administrators are under a tremendous workload in normal times; add a pandemic into the mix and educators are saddled with the financial, emotional and healthcare needs of their students as well as their academic needs.

While we often use the terms burnout and compassion fatigue interchangeably, as they show similar symptoms, there is a notable difference between the two.

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Burnout is considered reactionary and usually occurs gradually over time. It has long been a risk factor in environments with high workloads, worker shortages, stress, and challenging political and regulatory requirements.

Compassion fatigue, on the other hand, has a sudden onset and results from increased exposure to suffering and taking on the pain of others. For many professions, COVID-19 has created the perfect storm for the emergence of deep, pervasive levels of compassion fatigue.

While compassion fatigue is usually associated with nurses, physicians and caregivers, it is also a common experience among educators, especially in this pandemic era.

Moving back and forth between in person and remote learning, supporting student’s educational, social and emotional needs and ensuring the health and safety of young people has impacted faculty in a profound way.

Unaddressed compassion fatigue leads to anxiety, struggles to concentrate, feelings of isolation, loss of interest, exhaustion, lack of sleep and desire to leave ones’ position.

While this year has made compassion fatigue difficult to avoid, here are five tips to manage compassion fatigue for burnt out educators:

1. Reflect on where you are and what you need

Take an assessment. The Professional Quality of Life Scale offers a quick self-assessment to determine your level of compassion satisfaction, burnout and secondary trauma. This can be a great starting point to understanding your risk level and current state.

For many, a simple solution for combating compassion fatigue is re-engaging in the activities that bring us energy. Certain activities may have to be modified in this new COVID-19 landscape and may require us to really assess what will support us in new ways.

2. Set healthy boundaries

It is easier to set boundaries outside of a pandemic, when you are not being asked to take on larger workloads and there is less support available.

When working long hours and taking on additional responsibilities seems like the only option, assess and prioritize your level of fatigue and the alternatives available to you. Setting boundaries and changing the way you work is necessary to prevent harm to others and, equally important, to yourself.

While we can’t ensure everyone’s needs are met all the time, we can prioritize and do the best we can.

3. Cultivate a growth mindset

Successful people embrace optimism and possibility thinking. Psychologists often refer to the need for individuals to cultivate positivity and a growth mindset to live a fulfilling life.

The way we view situations, events and our circumstances shape how successfully we are able to navigate the challenges that life throws at us. A growth mindset is one that allows us to view talents and potential as things that can be learned and developed as opposed to a fixed mindset which says that these abilities are natural and innate.

When we embrace a belief that we can grow and improve, we experience greater degrees of empowerment and commitment to our work and life.

4. Practice self-care

Take care of yourself first. This is easier said than done, but also more important than ever.

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Make sure you are eating and sleeping well. Plan your meals so the busyness of the day does not overwhelm you. Give yourself uninterrupted breaks and create support structures at home and at work to help you rest when needed.

Finally, the most important part of self-care when you are experiencing compassion fatigue is self-compassion. You are doing your best right now, and while it may not feel good enough, it’s all anyone can ask of you. Release your self-guilt and continue doing the best you can.

5. Seek out support

The natural tendency with compassion fatigue is to isolate and withdraw. Actively resist this urge and be sure to find time to meet and speak with friends and family.

During traumatic events, we always recommend debriefs and this is one big trauma. Find time to debrief on a regular basis even if it feels like you are strong and expressing the same thing over and over. Seek out your pastor, counselor or a leadership coach to assist.

Educators devote so much time and energy into the success of their students that compassion fatigue is often inevitable. If your work in education is still bringing you value and satisfaction, continue seeking ways to build on your values and what is most important in your work.

However, with the right mindset and support system, we can overcome the feelings of compassion fatigue and burnout.

Laurie Cure, CEO of management consulting firm Innovative Connections, is a consultant offering strategic planning, organizational development, talent management and HR support for organizational effectiveness. Cure is the author of Leading Without Fear.

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