By Jennie Liang, CEI Intern
Protection against compassion fatigue and burnout starts with self-awareness. This is a powerful tool to help you notice your interactions with others, emotions, and reactions to stressful situations that arise. Becoming aware of levels of stress, burnout, and compassion fatigue will allow you to more readily seek out additional support when needed.
Fostering connection in different areas of your life is key to building resiliency to protect against compassion fatigue and burnout. These include strengthening connections with others, with yourselves, and with your work.
Connection with Others
Maintaining social connections is crucial to building resilience and emotional balance. While strong relationships with colleagues are helpful, it is also important to make time for friends outside of work. Catching up with a friend or taking a walk together can help destress and distract from work. Beyond creating social bonds, friends and family are also an important support network in times of stress. In addition to being a sounding board and offering words of comfort, they may also be able to help shoulder some responsibilities to lighten our burden. The work of educators can be difficult to put down, but having social and family connections outside of work helps us understand that there is more to life than our job.
Outside of friends and family, it may be helpful to turn to other sources of support. A therapist or counselor can help you process your emotions and develop strategies to create a healthy work-life balance. Support groups such as the Happy Teacher Revolution or the Teaching With Mental Health in Mind Facebook group can also provide a community of peers who understand your unique challenges and share advice on handling difficult situations.
When turning to others for support against compassion fatigue and burnout, it is important to remember that the people who we reach out to should be energizing rather than draining. Self-awareness will help determine who lifts us up when we need it—those are the connections to foster and maintain.
Connection to Self
Self-compassion and self-care are crucial ways to build resiliency against compassion fatigue and burnout. Having compassion for yourself will allow you to make time for self-care, rather than ignore your needs at the expense of work. Common self-care practices that help cultivate resilience and emotional strength are meditation, breath work, praying, journaling, reading, or taking a bath. If time is an issue, try taking a short break to close your eyes and focus on your breath, or put your hands on your heart and send yourself some compassion (Good Therapy, 2020).
To help build a stronger self-care practice, create an action plan using SMART goals. That is, goals that are Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-related. An example goal could be: “I will meditate for 5 minutes before getting out of bed every morning.” Start by setting 2-3 SMART self-care goals at a time to start slow and maintain focus. Once these goals become a part of your routine, add a few more goals to create a robust self-care practice (Erdman et al., 2020).
Another way to maintain self-connection is by honoring your emotional needs and setting boundaries. As educators, being compassionate and supporting others may seem like second nature but it is crucial to maintain some separation between other people’s lives and needs from your own. Similarly, it is also important to understand the limits of what you can do and how you can help. Focus on the task at hand and be fully present for your students without becoming overwhelmed by other issues outside of your control (Lesley University, n.d.).
Connection at Work
Finally, help overcome compassion fatigue by creating deeper connections at work. This can be done by making time to check-in and catch up with your colleagues or by creating formal workplace strategies to combat compassion fatigue. These workplace strategies can include regular breaks, mental health days, relaxation rooms, meditation classes, support groups, and open discussions about compassion fatigue. Make an effort to suggest these strategies to your employer and utilize them when you need to (Good Therapy, 2020).
School administrators should encourage staff interaction and build in regular time for collaboration and connection. Schedule events to provide opportunities for staff to socialize and have fun together, outside of the work environment. Encourage healthy boundaries amongst staff and keep an open door policy to ensure all staff are feeling supported and engaged. Be on the lookout for any teachers who are isolating themselves and check-in with them as needed (Sizemore, 2016).
With all that is happening today, it is a particularly important time to pay attention to your emotions and levels of stress and compassion fatigue. One way to monitor compassion fatigue is to regularly make notes on your feelings using a 1-10 scale and any significant changes over time. Quantifying your mental and emotional state allows you to track changes over time so you can take action before we are on the brink of burnout (Daily Caring, n.d.). Free, online assessments are also available like this simple Compassion Fatigue Test or the Professional Quality Of Life Measure (ProQOL). There are also mobile apps to help track your mood such as Moodnotes, MindDoc, and Daylio.
Once you recognize the need for self-care, fostering and maintaining connections are crucial protective factors against compassion fatigue and burnout. And while the COVID-19 pandemic may have made connecting more difficult, there are still ways to strengthen your connections to others, yourself, and your work.
Daily Caring. (n.d.). How to cope with compassion fatigue: 8 tips for caregivers.
Erdman, S., Colker, L.J., & Winter, E.C. (2020). Preventing compassion fatigue: Caring for yourself. Young Children, 75(3).
Good Therapy (2020, March 26). The cost of caring: 10 ways to prevent compassion fatigue.
Lesley University. (n.d.). Six ways for educators to avoid compassion fatigue.
Sizemore, C.B. (2016). Compassion fatigue: The silent thief in our schools. The Working Lives of Educators, 11(18).