Understanding compassion fatigue and how to prevent it

Tips and strategies for reducing compassion fatigue among university faculty and staff

Catherine Wehlburg's avatar
21 Apr 2023
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Athens State University

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After several absences from an online course, a student reached out to a faculty member to say that she was going to have to drop out of university. One of her children was suffering health issues, she was having to work extra hours at her job and she had ongoing problems with her car. The faculty member reached out to student services and was able to get the student access to counselling and a small emergency grant. That student did stay in her classes that semester and successfully passed. But the student’s story really affected the faculty member – and part of the reason was that this was not a first. Since the pandemic, the number of students (and others) dealing with issues that threaten to overwhelm them has increased, alongside mental health problems.

Many faculty and staff in higher education are faced with worrying student issues every day and student mental health appears to be worsening each year. Since our faculty and staff are the ones who work most closely with students, they are often the first to recognise that a student is having problems.

Compassion fatigue is when someone becomes overloaded with other people’s stress, leading to physical and mental exhaustion. Most commonly associated with health and social care professionals, it can happen to anyone who is working with or caring for others.

Faculty and staff care deeply about students and want them to be successful – but this is a difficult job. Over time, the compassion and empathy that faculty and staff have for students can affect their own mental and physical well-being. Working with students who are under stress can result in compassion fatigue and faculty and staff becoming numb to students’ issues. At that point, they will be less effective in supporting students’ learning and development.

Higher education leaders must address compassion fatigue among faculty and staff now more than ever. The following approaches can help.

1. Educate staff about compassion fatigue and what to look for in terms of symptoms. By providing literature, links or workshops on the topic, faculty and staff can begin to recognise the symptoms in themselves and others and address them before they lead to longer-term problems. Warning signs include feeling exhausted by work demands, reduced empathy, feeling detached and losing interest in activities you usually enjoy. Make stress management and mental health issues a priority. At Athens State, faculty and staff are provided with clear instructions on how to refer students to counselling and other support services and resources. We also work with Active Minds to provide access to self-care resources as well as strategies to lessen compassion fatigue.

2. Model and support the need for ongoing self-care and self-compassion. In higher education, it can be difficult to truly take a day (or longer) off. It is important that all staff have time away from campus. Support the creation of work-life boundaries and clearly set expectations such as only responding to emails during working days and hours. Higher education leaders can help by not sending requests during evening and weekend hours. Where necessary, use a “delay delivery” to time an email to be sent at a later time. University leaders should model healthy work ethics by taking their own vacation time off and encouraging that in their staff. By looking at the amount of personal leave an employee has banked, a supervisor can encourage staff to take appropriate time off.

3. Provide opportunities for connection and community-building across campus. Increased positive social interactions among faculty and staff can provide support and build resilience to compassion fatigue. A connection culture is one that fosters feelings of belonging and being part of a team rather than feeling left out or unsupported. When a connection culture is fostered, there is a shared sense of purpose and mission. To develop this type of culture, leaders must know employees by name and be authentic as people even within their leadership roles. Staff bonds and community can be enhanced by things as simple as regular communal meals or birthday parties for faculty and staff. University leaders will find that actively fostering collegiality on campus will bring benefits far beyond battling compassion fatigue.

4. Make student support resources easy to find so that faculty and staff can provide meaningful help or direct students to the relevant services. The University of California’s “Red Folder Initiative” is an example of how to do this. Under this scheme all the university system’s campuses committed to publishing a “red folder” as a quick reference guide to mental health resources for all faculty and staff who interact with distressed students. These folders list common warning signs, guide staff through campus protocols and explain who to contact in an emergency. Mental health and other support systems are vital, but it is equally important that faculty and staff know exactly what is available and how students can access it.

5. Provide professional counselling support for faculty and staff. Most higher education institutions provide counselling services to students. These should also be available to employees as part of their benefits packages. 

Higher education leaders can have a powerful impact on reducing compassion fatigue in faculty and staff. This will, in turn, strengthen their ability to support students. Intentional and empathetic support on campus will result in stronger resilience and coping strategies and will have a positive impact on the whole university community.

Catherine M. Wehlburg is the interim president at Athens State University.

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