It goes beyond tired, doesn’t it? It feels like exhaustion—physical and psychological. Perhaps you are not sleeping or eating well. Perhaps you have bouts of feeling hopeless, powerless, irritable, angry, or sad. Perhaps you worry about not doing enough to help your students, or have become numb to their needs, or even question your personal and professional worth. These are all symptoms of “compassion fatigue.”
Compassion fatigue is the idea that supporting others emotionally through their trauma causes secondary trauma to the caregiver. This idea initially made the rounds in the mental health literature mostly as a concern of helping professionals—e.g., health care workers, social workers, first-responders, and therapists. It was observed that they were “burning out” from providing emotional support to their clients.
While compassion fatigue may be more acute in the helping professions, it can be experienced by anyone giving emotional support to others. And it is no surprise that compassion fatigue is on the rise among educators, due to the supportive and personal nature of teaching, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when stress levels have increased for teachers and students alike and traditional support systems have been overwhelmed. This is a challenge across higher education, particularly at places like University of Phoenix, with our unique population of students who are older (average age of 37), ethnic minorities (56%), female (66%), working (83%), first-generation college students (60%), and with dependents (65%). We strive to provide significant support in terms of remediation, coaching, and mentoring, especially given the additional housing, childcare, food, and dependent schooling/homework, and financial stresses brought on by the pandemic. It is also quite common for our students to be first responders themselves in education, healthcare, and other front-line roles, which only compounds the stress experienced.
So, what can we do to help ourselves and our students? Essentially, it boils down to self-care: positive activities that help us manage stress; self-compassion: being kind, non-judgmental, and understanding of ourselves; and social support: creating or expanding our personal and professional networks.
Before you run emotionally, psychologically, and physically dry, try picking a few of the following activities and schedule them weekly (some you may want to incorporate daily) into your routine.
- Gardening (disclaimer: I don’t like to garden, but I do find it relaxing to pick up the leaves that drop from our trees.)
- Exercising (e.g., walking, running, hiking, biking, yoga, weight-training, etc.)
- Geocaching (outdoor treasure hunting that occupies your mind and gets your body moving!)
- Getting quality sleep
- Breathing (e.g., box breathing)
- Taking brain breaks – any activity that allows your body and your brain to re-charge and not focus on “work.” For example, follow a new podcast, listen to a new playlist, visit the San Diego Zoo via their webcams, choose a Google Arts and Culture adventure, and try a new app like Insight Timer, Calm, iBreathe, etc.
- Recognizing your pain or “failure” without judgement
- Practicing mindfulness – think about your thinking
- Extending the same understanding and grace that you give your students to yourself
Social support – Personal and professional
- Establishing a regular coffee or meal date with a friend. (In-person or virtual!)
- Joining an interest group that meets in-person or virtually. (My husband, for example, is a docent at the Desert Botanical Garden and enjoys swapping desert gardening tips online with his fellow docents.)
- Taking advantage of your university’s institutional memberships. For example, at University of Phoenix, faculty members can join UPCEA for free!
- Interacting with your university colleagues via whatever platform (Slack, Teams, Yammer, etc.) is provided by administration. This is a productive way to stay engaged with your university and bounce ideas off of your peers!
Do self-care, self-compassion, and social support truly help?
Yes, but I was skeptical at first. I tend to be a driven, over-achiever and have always found it difficult to relax or to even think about relaxing. Thus, when the pandemic arrived, my reserves were already shot. Over the past two years, I have:
- learned to practice self-compassion and allow myself to simply not be “perfect.” Do I still relive conversations and tend to be highly self-critical? You bet! However, I catch myself and try to redirect, so I don’t dwell on my perceived “failures.”
- doubled the amount of time I estimate for certain activities like grading papers, answering emails, writing a blog post, etc. I was always seriously underestimating the time it took me to complete activities and then berated myself for my lack of focus and inefficiency. I let that go.
- incorporated many self-care activities including limiting my Twitter, Instagram, and Tik-Tok time, scheduling daily stretching sessions, taking a virtual yoga class weekly, and simply leaving my home office occasionally. The latter has translated into going through the drive-through at Starbucks and going to the local park to work for a couple of hours – the view is much more rejuvenating than that from the window of my den!
- scheduled mini breaks. A quick walk to the mailbox or around the block with the dog gives my mind and body a chance to change gears. It also reminds me that there is life outside of the computer.
- allowed myself some “frivolous” downtime! I love to play Wordle (hence our new Faculty Training and Development offering), Woodoku, Word Trip, Wordle, and many other mini games. Ironically, they require your brain to be free and mindful simultaneously. Additionally, I subscribed to a few podcasts that I enjoy while walking my dog.
- cultivated new support networks – some virtual, and some in-person but distanced. (This was the most difficult “task” for me and took a lot of effort as I tend to like my alone time.) I stay in touch with current and former colleagues on Slack, Instagram, Twitter, Zoom, and What’s App. Although we are all in various locations around the globe, we have created a space in which we care for one another. My in-person networks have redefined themselves a little – outdoor and distanced bunco, a matinee or late night showing when it’s just me and a friend, etc.
- pruned activities and relationships from my circle that were no longer purposeful, productive, or positive. This didn’t happen all at once, but a little at a time.
Doing the above, even if somewhat sporadic and imperfect at times, has allowed me the space to recover my emotional, physical, and psychological equilibrium. Without “balance,” we cannot sustain a healthy and empathetic relationship with our students and colleagues, our family, and ourselves.
Tahnja Wilson, MBA/MIM is the director of Faculty Training and Development at the University of Phoenix. She has over 20+ years in higher education focusing on best practices, the incorporation of games into the curriculum, and “common-sense” design.
Cordaro, M. (2020). Pouring from an Empty Cup: The Case for Compassion Fatigue in Higher Education. Building Healthy Academic Communities Journal, 4(2), 17–28. https://doi.org/10.18061/bhac.v4i2.7618 https://library.osu.edu/ojs/index.php/BHAC/article/view/7618/5794
Lindecker, C. A., & Cramer, J. D. (2021). Student Self-disclosure and Faculty Compassion in Online Classrooms. Online Learning, 25(3), 144–156. https://olj.onlinelearningconsortium.org/index.php/olj/article/view/2347/1089
University of Phoenix (2020). 2020 Academic Annual Report. https://www.phoenix.edu/about_us/publications/academic-annual-report.html