Compassion fatigue is limiting academics’ ability to care for students

University managers must be committed to cultivating a compassionate culture and building trust in the workplace, says Andrew Woon

April 13, 2024
A burned out maths lecturer
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These days, significant attention is given to student well-being, and many institutions have started to prioritise compassionate pedagogy. However, there remains a limited focus on addressing compassion fatigue among faculty members.

As many studies have shown, there is a profound correlation between teacher well-being and student well-being. After all, faculty members play a crucial role in supporting student well-being and can help by creating an environment where every student feels safe.

But educators can’t be expected to be compassionate to students if they are not being treated compassionately themselves. Compassion fatigue is the result: a feeling of emotional and physical exhaustion, depersonalisation and disconnection that diminishes educators’ ability to empathise or feel compassion for themselves or others, with negative implications for both. This is distinct from burnout, another stress-related disorder with similar but more gradually developing and longer-term symptoms, which compassion fatigue can presage.

While the importance of compassion is more commonly associated with caregivers, such as nurses and social workers, academics are having to cope with an increasing number of diverse and vulnerable students, including those experiencing financial difficulties, caring responsibilities and challenging personal circumstances. Therefore, it is crucial for higher education institutions to recognise compassion as a core value in the workplace.

They also need to recognise that its presence cannot be taken for granted. My research indicates that compassion fatigue in academia is being fuelled by two main factors: depleted ability to cope with job and family responsibilities and diminished job satisfaction.

Academics have a high level of commitment and connectivity to their work, but their workloads are also increasing. And while university teaching, like social work, might serve to enhance a sense of compassion, strong commitment without boundaries can lead to diminished well-being and emotional exhaustion when workloads exceed individual capacities.

High job demands result in energy depletion and mental exhaustion that can, in turn, lead to compassion fatigue and other impacts on well-being, such as sleep deprivation and feelings of being drained. This is exacerbated by the challenge of establishing boundaries between work and personal life in the post-Covid work environment, in which the ability to work from home via work-related software has been firmly established.

Increasing administrative workload is another key contributing factor to compassion fatigue. My research found that the perception of being in control reduces stress. Hence, faculty members feel less stressed in the classroom, where they have more control, but more stressed about administrative demands, which often involve both colleagues from different departments and external parties, over which they have less control.

As for diminished satisfaction, my study found that it stemmed from both organisational and student-related factors. Examples of the former include lack of support and understanding from line managers and the institution, as well as a lack of autonomy, while discontent with students primarily relates to passive attitudes and behaviours towards learning, coupled with unrealistic expectations about favourable results. These phenomena, both brought about by consumerism, lead to self-doubt and emotional exhaustion among faculty, eventually leading to decreased interest in and satisfaction with their work.

Given that neglectful self-care due to high commitment towards work is a contributory factor to compassion fatigue, universities should invest resources in compassion-related training, mentoring and support for faculty members to create awareness about compassion fatigue and to guard against it by building resilience.

There is a measurement tool called Professional Quality of Life (proQOL), which allows individuals to conduct surveys to determine their levels of compassion satisfaction and fatigue. Universities should introduce this self-assessment tool and, through training, help individuals learn to recognise and be sensitive to the suffering of others, as well as equip themselves with skills to better manage their emotions and tolerate distress effectively.

There are also many external speakers who can deliver compassion training. Integrating compassion training into staff CPD programmes and funding it through the university is a practical way to resource it.

Since the work environment plays a crucial role in determining levels of compassion satisfaction, higher education leaders also need to pay attention to how organisational practices and support can enhance it. For example, line managers can organise social support groups such as weekly coffee sessions or professional social support networks that provide extra support to staff during stressful work periods. At the institutional level, the human resources department can organise wellness activities and mindfulness exercises that promote overall well-being and self-compassion.

Finally, leaders must be committed to cultivating a compassionate culture and building trust in the workplace by personally modelling how managers should behave to create an inclusive and empowered work environment. This will, in turn, translate compassion into the classroom, promoting inclusivity and mental well-being for both students and staff.

Andrew Woon is senior lecturer in strategic management at Queen Mary University of London.

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Reader's comments (2)

Good luck with all this. Academic life has always attracted ego-driven individuals who lack empathy and this has only go worse over my 32 year career. I cannot see how the extremely competitive and target driven world of today will leave room for what is suggested.
The system is ego-centric, if one needs to focus on individual achievements and showing leadership at all costs, one would not show empathy because it's not rewarded.