Advice & News

January 9, 2020

Overcoming Burnout and Compassion Fatigue in Higher Education


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Like health care professionals, those who work in higher education are empathic. The rewards for entering the profession are derived from helping others. However, empathizing too much can lead to burnout, or another type of chronic stress called "compassion fatigue," which results in mental or physical exhaustion, caused by exposure to other people's trauma.

Because of their exposure to secondary or vicarious trauma, physicians and nurses are more susceptible to compassion fatigue and they've been widely targeted for psychological interventions. Higher education professionals are similarly at risk, not because they are exposed to the same types and amounts of vicarious trauma as health care professionals, but because they are just as capable of responding to the needs of their clients, college students, with excessive empathy.

"The challenge is that a lot of us come to our work in higher education with a real desire to make a difference in students' lives; that is a wonderful thing," said Molly Mistretta, coauthor of a new book, "Overcoming Burnout and Compassion Fatigue in Schools: A Guide for Counselors, Administrators and Educators." "But when you become so overly invested that you have a hard time drawing boundaries between your work and personal life, that's going to set you up for compassion fatigue."

The expectations in higher education are changing, as students are increasingly more willing to share their trauma and rely on faculty, counselors, coaches, Title IX officers, and other staff to assist them. Also, institutions are more eager to serve students for the purposes of compliance, retention, good business, and goodwill.

"There's more exposure and awareness than ever before," Mistretta said. "The attitude for students who experienced trauma used to be that maybe they should take a semester off and (people recommended) sending the student away to deal with it at home. We are recognizing that, as institutions, we need to be able to work alongside students while they are dealing with issues."

Now an assistant professor of counseling and development at Slippery Rock University, Mistretta started working in higher education in residence life as an undergraduate and later became an associate dean of students at her alma mater, Westminster College in Pennsylvania. Mistretta has recognized that faculty and staff, as well as students who are resident assistants, are often the first people afflicted students turn to with their problems, which can be as serious as sexual assault, substance abuse, and mental health disorders.

While Mistretta's book, co-authored with Alison DuBois, associate professor of counseling and director of the Graduate School at Westminster College, is directed toward K-12 professionals, the issues and advice are just as pertinent to those working in higher education. In the book, the authors reference eight types of adverse childhood experiences, such as parents' divorce, substance abuse, or domestic violence, which contribute to children's health and social problems that aren't often reconciled until they reach college.

"Now here they are on their own for the first time as an adult trying to make sense of these experiences," Mistretta said. "If you grow up in a home where you are experiencing (adversity) as your normal and then you get to college and you realize this wasn't normal, now you don't know how to deal with this."

To help students, higher education professionals must rely on their ability to empathize, but only in moderation or else the burden will impair their work and they will experience burnout. First coined by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, burnout was used to describe the consequences of severe stress in the helping professions, but others, like Christina Maslach, professor emerita of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, define burnout as "a response to the chronic emotional strain of dealing extensively with other human beings, particularly when they are troubled or having problems."

"Burnout is the chronic stress of overwork," Mistretta said. "The thing about burnout is that you can reverse it; you can have time off, better manage your workload or change your responsibilities to help you recover. Compassion fatigue is different. It's a response to being exposed to someone else's trauma, and that doesn't just wash off; that story sticks with you and the effects can be mental fatigue. If you get too far down the line, the only thing you can do is change jobs. It's hard to recover from it."

According to Mistretta, burnout can lead to compassion fatigue because once you experience burnout, you're less resilient and unable to cope with stress. Once someone reaches advanced stages of compassion fatigue, they will subconsciously choose between empathizing to the point of exhaustion and total impairment, or they become desensitized to the trauma and begin treating what was once "people work" as transactional work just to do their job.

Here are a few tips to prevent or overcome burnout and compassion fatigue:

Reflect on your "compassion satisfaction."
If the quality of your professional life is influenced by negative aspects, resulting in compassion fatigue, then the flip side is being influenced by positive aspects. This is compassion satisfaction described as the pleasure you derive from being able to do your job well. You can derive pleasure by recognizing how you and your students positively changed from your resilience or what researchers have called "post-traumatic growth." Even if positive outcomes aren't easily identified, you and your students can learn from adversity and apply those lessons in the future. To develop compassion satisfaction, regularly ask yourself self-reflective questions like:

  • Why did I choose this profession?
  • What specific experiences have made me feel rewarded?
  • What specific experiences have enabled me to see myself or my students in a new way?
  • How can I increase the number of positive experiences at work?
Practice self-care.
You may feel guilty about exercising on your lunch break, even if it's just a 30-minute walk around campus. "People need to take care of themselves," Mistretta said. "Exercise and healthy personal habits matter." One healthy practice that is favored by the authors is meditation. Take just a few minutes each day to focus on your breathing and other senses associated with your stress. Take deep breaths, imagining you are gaining strength by inhaling and releasing negative energy by exhaling.

Ritualize your work/life balance.
You bring your whole self, including your empathic powers, everywhere you go, at home and at work. A good way to set boundaries is to create rituals and visualization techniques in your daily life, such as flipping a light switch to separate thoughts from work and home. Mistretta takes files related to work and locks them in a drawer before leaving work and she's made a personal pact not to check email outside of work, especially on her phone. "Sometimes those physical acts help you mentally separate," Mistretta said. Another ritual is to write down your problems and schedule "worry time" to address them later so they don't affect your home life, including sleep. "It's easy to ruminate about work problems while you're lying in bed at night and then you can't fall asleep," Mistretta added.

Debrief but don't complain.
Another balancing act is how and when to talk about stress and exposure to secondary trauma. While maintaining the appropriate privacy and reporting protocols when discussing specific students, remember to ask for help and use resources. A colleague, counseling staff at your institution, and your supervisor can be helpful. No one can help you if they are not aware of a problem, especially if it's your supervisor who can help you manage your workload and set priorities. Mistretta said to follow a low-impact debriefing when discussing students' problems, where graphic details are kept to a minimum and the focus is on the individual and organizational response. "If you are going to talk about these types of student problems, you have to do it in a way that is constructive," Mistretta said. "The focus is on your work with the individual and finding solutions, not the story." Keep your debriefing circle small, preferably only with your supervisor, and ask your supervisor for permission before engaging in a conversation, or else you could be spreading secondary trauma they aren't prepared for. Avoid complaining and venting to colleagues. Although complaining may give you instant comfort, camaraderie, and a dopamine hit of emotional validation, any benefits of complaining are short-lived and are rarely supported by psychological research. Instead, present your problems to the people who can provide solutions.

"As a field of higher education, we don't recognize enough that there is an emotional impact to the work that we do," Mistretta said. "The impact is quite high for people on campus working in places where there's a lot of emotional work that goes into the job. No one in higher education expects this to be a 40-hour-a-week job and it's harder when people around you are reinforcing bad habits. There needs to be support so they can continue doing their work and do it in a healthy way. And the first step is talking about the difference between regular burnout, from putting a lot of time in the office and feeling tired, versus compassion fatigue and understanding the effects of both and how to overcome them."