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Understanding and Combatting Compassion Fatigue

Approximate reading time: 5 minutes.

Being compassionate is an important part of being an educator. Your students need to know that you care about them. It makes you feel good too. After all, investing your energy in the next generation is one of the most fulfilling experiences possible. 

It can also be challenging. Perhaps you've been through a time when you wanted to care about the personal struggles of your pupils, but you just couldn't muster the energy. That feeling of helplessness or exhaustion is often referred to as compassion fatigue. It's very common in education, and it can have a substantial impact on teacher wellbeing. 

What is compassion fatigue? 

a wooden block with the word compassion next to a bouquet of flowers.

Having compassion and being empathetic are important parts of being an educator. When you care about your pupils, you're more invested in the learning process and are eager to be in the classroom. Compassion can also help you better understand and manage challenging pupils. However, there are drawbacks to being compassionate too. 

Professionals whose jobs require a high level of empathy and understanding are prone to compassion fatigue. The Royal College of Nursing describes compassion fatigue as the state of feeling helpless or no longer feeling able to care about the struggles of others. People who suffer from compassion fatigue have often heard repeated stories of trauma from the populations they work with. 

Over time, these professionals become 'dull' or 'numb' to hearing traumatic stories. They might feel as if they're helpless and can't do anything to better the other person's situation. People who suffer from compassion fatigue may come off as cold or uncaring because they seem immune to shock.

Of course, this isn't the case. People who suffer from compassion fatigue are still caring individuals at heart. They are simply 'running on empty' and don't have much physical or emotional energy to give to others.  

Why compassion fatigue in education is so common

Education staff compassion fatigue tends to be the result of acting as an informal counsellor for pupils. In a recent National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) survey, 66% of education staff reported that their schools didn't have a dedicated counsellor to help either pupils or staff. Another 24% of teachers cited concerns about pupil wellbeing as a reason they're stressed out at work. 

Understanding how compassion fatigue impacts teacher wellbeing 

Compassion fatigue and related issues such as secondary trauma tend to have a negative influence on education staff wellbeing. In a survey conducted in 2022, 78% of education staff reported experiencing symptoms of poor mental health due to work. Another 59% of staff reported suffering from behavioural issues like irritability, mood swings, and lack of concentration. 

Many educators suffer from compassion fatigue without realising it. Common signs of compassion fatigue include:

  • Anxiety
  • Sleep disruptions
  • Headache or body aches
  • Exhaustion
  • Irritability
  • Emotional disconnection
  • Feelings of numbness or hopelessness
  • Self-resentment 

If you're concerned about your wellbeing or have experienced a traumatic event, it's important to reach out for support. We've put together these helpful links to support services for you. If you are in crisis or are experiencing suicidal feelings, please call 999 straight away. 

While there is no hard-and-fast data on how many educators in the UK suffer from compassion fatigue, it's clear that the problem is widespread. Both pupils and education staff have faced increasing pressure and stress at school in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Educators don't necessarily have the outside resources or emotional energy required to meet the needs of their pupils.   

Helpful strategies to combat compassion fatigue 

Compassion fatigue can sap your energy and your enthusiasm for teaching. Left unaddressed, it can lead to burnout. Thankfully, you can combat compassion fatigue at work. Try these strategies for managing emotional overload. 

Let go of rigid thinking and outdated expectations

Educators hold themselves to high standards when it comes to classroom outcomes and pupil achievement. For example, you might believe that you've failed as an educator if a few of your pupils don't meet academic milestones when they should. Some educators may even feel responsible when their pupils are bullied or struggle to fit in. 

While you should have expectations for the classroom, it's important to be realistic. Demanding too much of yourself will drain you emotionally and can make you resent your job. The truth is that you won't always do things perfectly. You will make mistakes as an educator, and that's okay.

Remember that you are only one person and cannot control every aspect of a pupil's learning experience. Focus on providing high-quality instruction. Don't punish yourself if every pupil doesn't master a subject quickly. Do the best you can, and don't expect more of yourself than is reasonable. 

Know what tasks are your responsibility

Educators are known for taking on many roles. You probably feel like a teacher, social worker, and counsellor at various times throughout your day. Perhaps you take on these tasks because your school doesn't have enough counselling resources to meet student and staff needs. Maybe you've come to feel that it's just a part of the job. 

Step back and remember that many of the social work and counselling duties you juggle are not your responsibility. Of course, you shouldn't abandon a pupil in time of need. Instead, follow your school's safeguarding procedures. Reach out to your safeguarding lead to report your concern.

Remind yourself that you are not responsible for fixing a pupil's problems at home. It can be frustrating to wait on the proper authorities, but doing so protects your mental wellbeing and ensures you can be there for students in the future.  

Rely on connections with your colleagues 

a group of people connected to a network.

Building relationships with other staff members is a healthy coping strategy that can help you face challenges at work. When you have good relationships with the educators in your school, you know that you can turn to them for help. Don't be afraid to ask for support from colleagues if you feel emotionally overwhelmed.

It's a good idea to talk with a trusted colleague if you think you might be experiencing compassion fatigue. A fellow educator can help you assess your feelings and cope with student demands. Of course, you can also confide in friends and family who you trust for comfort and advice.

Try practising mindfulness 

Mindfulness is the art of acknowledging emotions, then letting them go without judgment. When you're thinking mindfully, you:

  • Note what you're feeling
  • Acknowledge what made you feel that way 
  • Release that feeling without punishing yourself 

When you practise mindfulness in the classroom, you observe what's happening and what you're feeling. You make a mental note of these things, but you don't judge yourself. Instead, you accept what you feel and try to let it go. 

Imagine that a pupil tells you his family has just become homeless. You might feel upset, sad, worried, or even angry at his parents. Gently acknowledge and accept your feelings. Take any steps you need in contacting your safeguarding lead, then allow yourself to move on.

This doesn't mean that you won't be there for the same pupil in the future, or that you've stopped worrying about them. It just means that you are choosing not to cling to negative emotions that the student's situation awakened. This helps prevent burnout and allows you to be present when similar student needs arise again. 

Prioritise self-care

Taking good care of yourself is key to coping with compassion fatigue. First and foremost, prioritise getting a good night's sleep. Being well-rested will help you respond to student needs without feeling emotionally drained. It also helps you stay level-headed so that you can make good decisions to protect your mental wellbeing. Indulging in special self-care rituals like long baths and at-home spa treatments can also enhance overall wellbeing. 

Eating a good diet and getting regular exercise are also important. Being in good physical health gives you the energy you need to manage your classroom and listen attentively to pupils. Even a little bit of exercise goes a long way. If you're short on time, try:

  • Going for a walk before school starts
  • Riding your bike to work 
  • Doing quick stretches between class periods
  • Dancing around your house when you get home
  • Fitting in a pre-bedtime yoga session

Be gentle with yourself

You're a pro at practising compassion with your pupils. Be sure to have some compassion for yourself too. Being an educator is incredibly challenging. Don't blame yourself for not having an answer to every problem your pupils have. You are a reliable, caring individual who students know they can count on for compassion. That alone can make a substantial, positive impact on any pupil's life.  

As an educator, your wellbeing is important. When you feel your best, you can provide the best instruction to your students. So why not explore some of the topics and wellbeing journeys in your Wellbeing toolkit today? Not yet a member? You can get access to resources to help boost your overall wellbeing by signing up for your free Welbee Wellbeing Toolkit today. You'll find loads of articles, videos, and courses designed to help educators and school leaders cope with wellbeing challenges.

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