Compassion Fatigue and Burnout: A Leader’s Responsibility

Updated: May 26, 2021

By Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support

As the end of one of the most difficult school years many have faced in decades is in sight, educators and parents are looking forward to the summer and the next transition. The feeling of burnout is nearly universal, no matter if your days have been spent hopping from one virtual meeting to the next, providing doses of the vaccine to community members, or juggling hybrid learning environments as a student, parent, or teacher. It has been a tough year and we are all exhausted! We all need to rest, restore, recover, and truly reset. To address our collective sense of burnout and compassion fatigue, our leaders are faced with rebuilding our systems to better serve families, especially in the wake of the trauma that COVID-19 has disproportionately caused.

Why Burnout is a Systems Problem, Not an Individual One

a woman holds her hands over her face

Many, but not all, teachers and school mental health providers report a sense of “compassion fatigue” which the American Institute of Stress (2020) defines as “emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events.” We know that not all traumatic events leave each person with the same impressions. Still, we also know that each school professional has encountered at least one student and family who has experienced trauma this year. A large number of educators—after working long hours serving students experiencing the tragedies of death, illness, and racial violence—are reporting increased levels of compassion fatigue during the 2020-2021 school year. Compassion fatigue can be contagious as the people around us share sad stories in order to process the emotions invoked by stressful events. During this extremely challenging year, school leaders must create safe spaces where staff can untangle complicated feelings related to their work during this year. We encourage administrators to plan specific occasions for staff to be in conversation around their work challenges and to share resources about how teachers can connect with one another and other support systems.

Compassion fatigue often affects clusters of educators and staff at a school or district who may work directly with students experiencing a particular hardship (i.e., students living in poverty, overcoming a chronic illness, or experiencing an abusive home environment). Compassion fatigue, when combined with unreasonable expectations or challenging work culture or work load, can often lead to burnout. The American Institute of Stress (2020) defines burnout as “the cumulative process marked by emotional exhaustion and withdrawal associated with increased workload and institutional stress, NOT trauma-related.” People become burned out because their workplaces expect them to complete too much work in too little time, often leaving them with fewer opportunities to rest or engage in non-work relationships or activities.

What Leaders Can Do to Address Compassion Fatigue and Burnout

people sitting on chair with brown wooden table

While they are separate issues, with different roots and causes, intervention from leadership is imperative to address both compassion fatigue and burnout. When burnout or compassion fatigue cause a sense of overwhelm, lack of motivation, and desire to give up, providing moments of mindfulness, kind words, and treats can help support employees through to the end of the day or week. However, the only thing that will completely restore people when they are experiencing these challenges is a true break and a reduction in the extra stresses and interactions they are experiencing. When we ask educators to expend immense emotional and intellectual labor by being available to students, families, or their teaching obligations after hours, we are not allowing them that necessary separation between home and work.

There are several concrete ways administrators can reduce compassion fatigue and burnout:

  1. Implement policies dissuading families from contacting educators after hours, tying the decision to promoting a culture of community care, where everyone has the right to turn off and fully be off of work.

  2. Have a conversation with staff about the cause of their burnout and address the issues they raise, which may include staff meeting time/frequency/structure, administrative work, isolation, lack of support or independence, staffing structures, long work days, infrequent vacations, and/or lack of emotional support to process difficult work situations.

  3. Provide resources like this Teacher’s Guide that helps teachers understand how to respond to specific situations in which they experience compassion fatigue.

  4. Set an example as a leader. Take time off, unplug from work on the evenings and weekends, and say no when your plate is full. Be vocal about why you are taking these steps and encourage others to follow your lead. Clearly identify the tasks and obligations that can be delayed, changed, or canceled, and look for ways to simplify.

  5. Advocate for changes at the district, state, and national level, especially higher pay so that teachers and other school staff do not have to work on the weekends or during the summers. Advocate for increased school funding so that teachers can have smaller class sizes and all of the staff necessary to run a school building effectively can be hired.

Using Mindfulness to Provide Breaks that Restore

All the yoga and meditation in the world won’t sustain you if you’re working seven 12-hour days and only getting six hours of sleep each night. There are many leaders who wish they could take some work off their staff’s plates, set strong boundaries around work hours, or give their employees time off who don’t have the authority to make those calls. While they advocate for their employees’ needs with those with decision-making power, there are small steps leaders can take to give educators the breaks that are imperative to addressing their mental and emotional well-being in times of crisis that require them to put in more than they have to give.

woman wearing black sports bra

Consider implementing schoolwide mindfulness moments at key points in the day—to start the day off, between lunch and afternoon classes, and towards the close of the day. Mindfulness practices like breath work, yoga, and meditation can help reset the central nervous system, completing the stress response cycle. Some teachers experiencing chronic stress and compassion fatigue, on the verge of burnout, are close to leaving the profession. Perhaps administrators can encourage their staff to use some of their down time to restore using mindfulness.

Given what we have all experienced over the last year and a half, we hope that administrators can give all educators the maximum number of approved vacation days this summer, with no obligations, so that they can get the break they so desperately need.

Review this recent Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative listening session, Demystifying the Trauma-Informed Yoga Practice, to learn how you and your staff can use yoga to release stress and heal trauma.


References

American Institute of Stress. (n.d.). Definitions.

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