Compassion Fatigue: What Is It and What Can We Do About It?

By Jackson Sims, CEI Intern

The role of an educator is far from static. On any given day, an educator can take on a number of duties, ranging from teaching in the classroom to having a private conversation with a student or their family. Regardless of these small differences, there is one common thread: Compassion. Educators are often characterized by kindness, patience, and a commitment to the growth and well-being of their students. The level of emotional investment required of an educator can be draining, potentially leading to an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion known as compassion fatigue. If left unaddressed, compassion fatigue can turn into burnout, causing some educators—often the ones who care the most—to leave the field or experience ongoing health issues as a result. What causes these feelings, and what actions can be taken to minimize their effects?

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Generally speaking, compassion fatigue is “a broadly defined concept that can include emotional, physical, and spiritual distress in those providing care to another.” (Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, 2021). This definition may sound similar to burnout, but the two concepts aren’t exactly the same. The distinction stems from the presence of trauma: Compassion fatigue typically affects people in careers where exposure to others’ trauma is high—including fields such as medicine, social work, and education—while burnout can occur regardless of your career path (Catholic Health Association of the United States, 2011). That being said, these commonalities shouldn’t be ignored; compassion fatigue can be both a contributor and a companion to burnout as a whole. Understanding the causes and consequences of compassion fatigue is key to ensuring a healthier, happier work life.

It’s easy to think of compassion fatigue as a “condition”, but it’s more accurately described as a collection of symptoms (Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, 2021). Compassion fatigue expresses itself differently in everyone. Some people may experience heightened or diminished emotions, while others might feel physically tired throughout the day. In the end, there isn’t a strict set of symptoms that can be used to recognize compassion fatigue. It’s crucial to check-in with yourself, a loved one, or even a medical professional if you believe that you might be experiencing compassion fatigue.

How Do We Recognize Compassion Fatigue?

One of the easiest ways to recognize compassion fatigue is to assess the situation(s) you experience as a part of your career. Educators have never had an “easy” job, and recent shifts in learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic have only amplified these challenges. The sudden changes in students’ lives—and similar ones in educators’ lives—have the potential to create a collective trauma, requiring educators to be particularly aware and considerate of students’ and colleagues’ needs and concerns. Many educators are now addressing a significantly higher number of trauma-based challenges in their students and in their own personal lives, making them particularly vulnerable to compassion fatigue during this time.

Although compassion fatigue manifests differently for everyone, there are a number of documented symptoms that can be compared to an individual’s personal experience(s). The American Academy of Family Physicians (2000) describes a number of potential symptoms, including both physical (hypertension, disturbed sleep) and mental/emotional (irritability, low self-esteem) manifestations. There are also a number of self-assessments available for public use. One of the most commonly used assessments is the Professional Quality of Life Measure (2012), which uses a series of Likert scales to address the areas of compassion satisfaction, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress. This being said, compassion fatigue’s many forms can make it difficult to establish a “true diagnosis.” Ultimately, the best way to recognize compassion fatigue is to acknowledge the feelings that come from your work life, and to take action if you believe that you’re experiencing symptoms

How Do We Address Compassion Fatigue

As might be expected from the varied nature of compassion fatigue’s symptoms, there isn’t a universal solution. The ideal “treatment plan” is largely a matter of personal preference and resources, though there are a few general rules that should be kept in mind. These “Do’s” and “Don’ts” of compassion fatigue include:

  • Do take time for yourself, ideally through a substantial break from your work environment and other stressors. Stepping away from the challenges of being an educator should not be a source of guilt. After all, even Mother Theresa encouraged her nuns to take year-long breaks every five years (American Institute of Stress, 2020). Compassion fatigue is best combated by stepping away from the source.
  • Don’t wait for the “right time” to take a break. Life is unpredictable, and the perfect moment may never come. If you continue to wait without properly allocating that time, the more likely it is that your mental health and work ethic may suffer. Take the initiative whenever possible.
  • Do share your feelings with a close friend or trusted community that understands your work. Compassion fatigue can feel overwhelming and isolating, but you are never alone. Someone who has had a similar experience to yours may be able to offer you some insight; you might even have the opportunity to do the same for someone else. If nothing else, speaking your feelings aloud can assist with understanding the circumstances and developing a solution.
  • Don’t use others’ experiences as a model for your own. Everyone experiences and adapts to compassion fatigue differently—the best strategy for a coworker may not be the best strategy for you.
  • Do be realistic about your needs and challenges. Whether you’re currently in the workplace or on a much-needed break, take some time every day to check in with yourself. Acknowledge what you’re feeling, what challenges you’re facing, and what hopes and/or concerns are on your mind. If you can recognize when you’re experiencing compassion fatigue—or even just the initial feelings—it will be much easier to take action.
  • Don’t be in a rush to return to work. If you’re taking time off, you probably need it, possibly even more than you think you do! It can be tempting to return to your normal routine, and that’s where the daily check-ins are most important. If you feel rested, renewed, and fully confident, then you could be ready to resume your routine. But if those feelings of exhaustion and worry are still in full force, it might be best to relax for a little while longer.

Ultimately, compassion fatigue is a complex problem with a number of possible solutions. Regardless of what options may or may not work for you, it’s important to be patient with yourself throughout the process and know that you are not alone. Compassion fatigue is something that accumulates over time, and reducing those feelings will naturally take time as well. Throughout it all, just remember that taking care of yourself is a prerequisite to caring for others. Minimizing the effects of compassion fatigue puts you in the best position to excel, thrive, and support members of your community.

References

The American Institute of Stress. (2020). Compassion fatigue.

Smith, P. & Smith, D. (2021). Compassion fatigue. Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project.

Pfifferling, J. & Gilley, K. (2000). Overcoming compassion fatigue. American Academy of Family Practical Management, 7(4), 39-44.

Portnoy, D. (2011). Burnout and compassion fatigue: Watch for the signs. Journal of the Catholic Health Association of the United States.

ProQOL. (2012). Professional Quality of Life Measure.


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