What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is the cost of caring “too much”. It can occur as a result of helping, or wanting to help, those who are in need. But by identifying the signs early, teachers can be quick to respond in a resourceful way. 

By Momentous Institute | Apr 27, 2021
Compassion Fatigue 01

As we continue to discuss teacher mental health, we want to explore another term that often impacts teachers. We’ve discussed burnout and secondary trauma but there’s a third thing we think is important to explore: compassion fatigue. Let’s break it down.

We all know what these two words mean independently – compassion is the caring action of empathy and concern. Fatigue is exhaustion. So compassion fatigue is when someone experiences exhaustion, both physical and emotional, from caring for someone who has gone through a traumatic experience. Put simply – compassion fatigue is the cost of caring “too much”. It is a form of secondary trauma, as the stress occurs as a result of helping, or wanting to help, those who are in need.

Compassion fatigue is similar to burnout but is distinct in an important way. Unlike burnout, which accumulates over time, compassion fatigue can appear suddenly. It can also be less predictable and come without warning. It can be a sort of silent thief, appearing from the shadows and stealing joy and enthusiasm for teaching.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, more than 10 million children each year in the United States experience traumatic events in their lives. These children are in every school – there is no pocket of the country that is immune to trauma. That means that nearly every teacher will interact with a child, or more likely multiple children, who have or are experiencing trauma throughout their career. As teachers start to learn these students’ stories, it is difficult to ignore them and not have compassion. Add on top of that the other demands of teaching – rigid schedules, unrealistic expectations, lack of support – it all adds up to quite the psychological workload. It is hard to NOT fall victim to compassion fatigue.

However, the result of compassion fatigue is damaging. Some of the signs and symptoms include:

  • Chronic exhaustion (emotional, physical, or both)
  • Reduced feelings of sympathy or empathy (being able to share in the feelings of others)
  • Dreading working
  • Feelings of irritability, anger, or anxiety
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Poor work-life balance

In short, teachers who experience compassion fatigue can become detached rather than delighted, tired rather than excited or even resentful rather than resourceful.

A variety of symptoms can manifest themselves in a person's life, including insomnia, overeating, skipping meals, addictive behavior, isolating oneself, depression, anxiety, or anger. They might notice an increase in fighting with partners or children, having no patience, feeling exhausted, unmotivated, and, maybe even being less interested in what their students have to say. But these signs are helpful as they can quickly alert one of their empty tank.

By identifying these signs early, teachers can be quick to respond in a resourceful way. Taking short breaks throughout the day, focusing on deep, intentional breathing, or even something as small as placing their hands on their chest and feeling the beating of the heart can pull a teacher out of the moment and put them on the path to healing.