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Pouring from An Empty Cup: The Case for Compassion Fatigue in Higher Education

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Abstract

Background: With the global pandemic, higher education has experienced unparalleled changes with abrupt transitions to remote and online learning. Faculty are working to provide continuity of teaching and support to students whose lives have been disrupted; therefore, faculty are finding themselves managing distressed students with a wide range of issues, while also managing their own intrapersonal stress. Consequently, faculty may experience feelings of being psychologically overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted. Aim: This article informs faculty in higher education on the concept of compassion fatigue along with the symptoms, warning signs, and risk factors. In addition, protective factors, including self-care plans and coping strategies are addressed. Methods: A comprehensive review of the literature on compassion fatigue was conducted including the application of the construct to teaching and education. The literature review illuminates the use of compassion fatigue, originating from the scientific disciplines of counseling and traumatology, within an emerging line of research findings occurring amongst educators prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Results: The literature demonstrates that compassion fatigue as a prospective, intrapersonal condition may potentially affect some faculty in higher education, and the proposed conceptual application of the construct to teaching and education can assist with acknowledging and understanding an important aspect of faculty mental health. Conclusions: Given the crisis surrounding the pandemic, it's essential for faculty to be aware of compassion fatigue in order to mitigate potential intrapersonal psychological and emotional consequences. Elucidating the symptoms and implications of compassion fatigue for faculty in higher education is part of a broader, overlooked issue on faculty mental health and wellness.
https://doi.org/10.18061/bhac.v4i2.7618 Building Healthy Academic Communities Journal Vol. 4, No. 2, 2020
© 2020 Cordaro. This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International
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Pouring from an Empty Cup: The Case for Compassion Fatigue in Higher Education
Millie Cordaro, PhD, LPC
Texas State University
ABSTRACT
Background: With the global pandemic, higher education has experienced unparalleled changes with
abrupt transitions to remote and online learning. Faculty are working to provide continuity of teaching
and support to students whose lives have been disrupted; therefore, faculty are finding themselves
managing distressed students with a wide range of issues, while also managing their own intrapersonal
stress. Consequently, faculty may experience feelings of being psychologically overwhelmed and
emotionally exhausted.
Aim: This article informs faculty in higher education on the concept of compassion fatigue along with
the symptoms, warning signs, and risk factors. In addition, protective factors, including self-care plans
and coping strategies are addressed.
Methods: A comprehensive review of the literature on compassion fatigue was conducted including the
application of the construct to teaching and education. The literature review illuminates the use of
compassion fatigue, originating from the scientific disciplines of counseling and traumatology, within an
emerging line of research findings occurring amongst educators prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Results: The literature demonstrates that compassion fatigue as a prospective, intrapersonal condition
may potentially affect some faculty in higher education, and the proposed conceptual application of the
construct to teaching and education can assist with acknowledging and understanding an important aspect
of faculty mental health.
Conclusions: Given the crisis surrounding the pandemic, it’s essential for faculty to be aware of
compassion fatigue in order to mitigate potential intrapersonal psychological and emotional
consequences. Elucidating the symptoms and implications of compassion fatigue for faculty in higher
education is part of a broader, overlooked issue on faculty mental health and wellness.
Submitted 15 April 2020: accepted 28 May 2020
Keywords: compassion fatigue, teaching, higher education, pandemic, faculty mental health
These are unprecedented times in higher education. Within a few short weeks, the life and school routines for both
faculty and students have been disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With a sense of urgency from an insidious
emergency, faculty have worked through the stressful and chaotic process of pivoting to remote teaching, a shared
experience throughout college and university communities. With institution-wide online classes underway during the
pandemic, new and disconcerting social implications are unfolding. Students have been forced to leave behind their
former collegiate lives, and endure other potentially stressful transitions and experiences: dispersing from residence
halls; job loss or job-related schedule changes; the loss of in-person campus support; the loss of social support from
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18
college friends and roommates; technological issues due to displacement; COVID-19 illnesses; caretaking of ill family
members, and in some instances grieving the death of a loved one. There are some students who are adequately
functioning despite adverse circumstances. For other students, these changes have brought about increased stressors
beyond their coping skills; in response, some faculty are actively increasing their support and availability. Moreover,
these faculty are developing a deeper regard or concern for those students whose life pathways have taken a turn for
the worse. Faculty are also managing new pandemic-related personal stressors. In the midst of the turmoil, a new
occupational hazard for empathic instructors is likely to emerge as a result of exposure to student stressors and
adversity. This potential threat could manifest from within one’s personhood (Stanghellini & Rosfort, 2013), affecting
the mental health of faculty, specifically, their emotions and general well-being.
Deeply caring for distressed students can be a major source of faculty stress, and this stress can potentially
heighten amidst the pandemic. The literature is long-standing in the observation that people can become distressed
or traumatized by othershardships (Killian, 2008). In fact, several studies have documented that individuals can be
traumatized directly, as well as indirectly via secondary traumatic stress (Stamm, 2010). Secondary traumatic stress is
defined as the emotional impact of vicariously dealing with another’s trauma (Fleming et. al., 2020). In other words,
knowing that someone close to you is experiencing trauma, can potentially be traumatic for you (Figley, 2002). For
example, receiving information that a former student or colleague experienced complications related to COVID-19,
or died as a result of the virus can be experienced as secondary traumatic stress. The majority of faculty in higher
education care to some degree about their students, and it is this positive regard for students that needs protection as
well. The pandemic is not without psychological consequences for all. Whether it is transitioning the role of teacher
from a classroom or lab space to the online environment, the social disruption implications of the pandemic can
potentially create additional layers of complexity in faculty work lives. As faculty continue to practice varying degrees
of social distancing around the world, they are also managing additional personal responsibilities: home-schooling
children; added household chores; sharing home-based workspace with a spouse or partner; worrying over the health
and well-being of aging parents and family members; or struggling with self-isolation. The pandemic has potentially
affected faculty by compounding routine, job-related stressors with their studentsown traumas. Specifically, to be
emotionally present, accessible, and supportive to students in order to provide continuity in teaching and learning can
create additional stressors for faculty. For empathic educators working with distressed students, there is a possibility
of becoming vulnerable to a specific type of secondary trauma, i.e., compassion fatigue (Hoffman, Palladino, &
Barnett, 2007). The aim of this article is to bring the notion of compassion fatigue to the forefront as a faculty mental
health issue that some will experience while working and teaching in the higher education profession during the
current crisis.
COMPASSION FATIGUE CONCEPTUALIZATION
Compassion fatigue encompasses secondary traumatic stress and is described as the experience of feeling
psychological stress brought on by listening and being exposed to the details of another’s distressful circumstances
(Figley, 1995). Originating from the mental health literature, specifically traumatology, the construct was developed
out of a necessity to identify why helping professionals were being negatively affected by providing emotional support
to their clients (Figley, 1995). However, the term is not exclusive to those working within the field of traumatology as
it has been applied to a wide range of professions (Yang & Kim, 2012), including teaching (Hoffman, Palladino, &
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19
Barnett, 2007). While most faculty are not affiliated with the helping professions, they are being cast into a helping
role. With empathy playing a central role in the onset of compassion fatigue (Figley, 2002), it is defined as an empathic
strain or general exhaustion that comes from working with the distressed over time (Figley, 1995; Turgoose &
Maddox, 2017). With ongoing emotional, physical, or mental exhaustion, compassion fatigue can impede feelings of
empathy and concern for others (Figley, 2002). Due to the nature of COVID-19, some faculty may exhibit a
psychological vulnerability toward developing compassion fatigue by bearing witness to students who are distressed,
struggling with mental health issues, or experiencing trauma in their lives. By simply caring and exercising empathy
toward students, faculty can become psychologically overwhelmed. Given the circumstances surrounding the
pandemic, faculty will naturally want to provide comfort to students while juggling family obligations and other
personal demands; in turn, becoming susceptible to compassion fatigue long before their career is over.
COMPASSION FATIGUE SYMPTOMOLOGY
Symptoms of compassion fatigue have been documented in the literature, and are important for faculty to be aware
of in order to buffer against their potential impact in themselves and their colleagues. In general, compassion fatigue
can be experienced by anyone in a helping role that still has the desire to give support despite feeling overwhelmed
by stressors belonging to someone else (Branson, 2019).
Providing emotional support to those experiencing trauma can lead to psychological symptoms of compassion
fatigue: physical or emotional exhaustion; continuous mental involvement in others’ issues; feelings of being
overwhelmed or helpless; and feelings of sadness, grief, depression, anxiety, dread, fear, or emotional numbness. More
features related to compassion fatigue include experiencing poor self-esteem, guilt for enjoying oneself, engaging in
alcohol or drug use, or experiencing relational issues (Figley, 2002a; Fleming et al., 2020; Sabery, Tafreshi, Hosseini,
Mohtashami, & Ebadi, 2019). Faculty would be well served to take note should they begin to experience such negative
affect, or find themselves engaging in numbing or addictive behaviors. In fact, in some cases, compassion fatigue
experienced as secondary traumatic stress can mirror the clinical features of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
including hyperarousal, avoidance, or intrusive thoughts or memories vicariously internalized from someone else’s
trauma and pain (Bride, 2004; Turgoose & Maddox, 2017). Last, the inability to provide emotional support or empathy
within one’s own personal relationships due to job-related emotional exhaustion is another warning sign to consider.
Cognitive symptoms of compassion fatigue are prevalent as well. These symptoms can affect one’s meaning-
making system (i.e., guiding principles on how one connects within themselves and with others, and how individuals
make sense of their life events) ranging from moral or philosophical dilemmas to questioning of one’s existential
meaning and spirituality in the midst of a disaster (Figley, 2002b; Lahad, 2000; Pearlman & Saakvitne, 1995).
Therefore, if a faculty member begins to question or feel cynical about their life’s purpose and meaning in either their
personal or professional lives due to distress, it can be a warning sign that despite best intentions they are emotionally
and psychologically overwhelmed. Compassion fatigue does encompass burnout as well, which entails a gradual onset
of feelings of hopelessness and diminished job satisfaction and productivity (Bhutani, Bhutani, Balhara, & Kalra, 2012;
Soderfelt & Soderfelt, 1995).
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RISK FACTORS FOR COMPASSION FATIGUE
Several risk factors have been empirically linked to the onset of compassion fatigue. Being aware of these risk factors
can assist faculty with targeting self-care and coping strategies to protect themselves against the harmful psychological
consequences of compassion fatigue (Hensel, Ruiz, Finney, & Dewa, 2015).
Neglecting one’s self-care has been cited as a risk factor for developing compassion fatigue (Ray, Wong, White,
& Heaslip, 2012), and like other professions, offsetting student-care with self-care can be a challenge for some (Can
& Watson, 2019). Given that there has been a long-standing stigma that self-care is self-indulging or a personal luxury,
it can prove challenging for some to make the paradigm shift (Carroll, Gilroy, & Murra, 1999). Figley (2002a) phrased
compassion fatigue as “the cost for caring,” and faculty need to be mindful that ignoring one’s emotional or
psychological needs can lead to negative outcomes. As the euphemism lightly suggests, “you can’t pour from an empty
cup.”
Another risk factor for compassion fatigue is porous professional boundaries (Abendroth & Flannery, 2006).
Prior to the pandemic, the issue to be addressed would be the professional and physical boundaries that faculty
maintain with students in order to achieve a personal satisfactory work-life balance. However, with the viral outbreak
and consequent life disruption, faculty collectively have been practicing social distancing, which defaulted them into
a physical distance from students. Ironically, despite the physical boundary, the cognitive appraisal of the situation
and our emotional response still needs addressed via a professional boundary. In other words, faculty should practice
psychologically distancing themselves from their students at times to protect their emotional well-being. Otherwise,
as previously noted, allowing the mind to be continuously preoccupied by the distress of students would be both
emotionally and mentally taxing (Sabery et al., 2019). It is a delicate dance of being emotionally connected to students
while maintaining a salient and separate sense of self, especially in times of a far-reaching crisis.
One’s age is another risk factor associated with compassion fatigue, in that as individuals mature throughout their
lifespan, they tend to become more psychologically robust (Adams, Matto, & Harrington, 2001). Other studies report
that females are at a greater risk for compassion fatigue than males (Meyers & Cornille, 2002), and those with a
personal trauma history are more susceptible to secondary traumatic stress and compassion fatigue (Nelson-Gardell
& Harris, 2003). As a final risk factor, research has shown that inadequate personal (O’Neill & Morrow, 2001) or
professional support puts employees at a greater risk for compassion fatigue (Boscarino, Figley, & Adams, 2004).
Collectively, these risk factors can be considered benchmarks as faculty members ascertain their own
susceptibilities to compassion fatigue. It is important to note that these risk factors were generally identified in the
literature as occurring outside the context of a far-reaching crisis or catastrophic event (Sprang, Clark, & Whitt-
Woosley, 2007). In other words, while research supports that these risk factors were present prior to and during other
crises, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks (Tosone, Bettmann Schaefer, Minami, & Jasperson, 2010), it is hypothesized
that these risk factors will be ubiquitous across many disciplines and professions due to the COVID-19 crisis as well.
PROTECTIVE FACTORS AS COPING STRATEGIES FOR COMPASSION FATIGUE
Contemporary literature has noted several protective factors that reduce the likelihood of developing compassion
fatigue. These protective factors can be applied as proactive coping strategies (e.g., preventatively coping in advance)
or as intervention coping strategies once compassion fatigue is suspected. Given that neglectful self-care was
previously identified as a risk factor for compassion fatigue, the antithesis (i.e., actively engaging in strategic self-care
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interventions) has been shown to increase satisfaction and well-being (Hotchkiss & Lesher, 2018), and decrease
compassion fatigue, secondary trauma stress, and burnout (Alkema, Linton, & Davies, 2008).
Self-care is defined as positive activities that help to manage stress and it is associated with positive physical
health, mental health and emotional well-being (Shapiro, Brown & Biegel, 2007; Cook-Cotton & Guyker, 2018). Lee
and Miller (2013) proposed that self-care should address both the personal and professional self to holistically
maintain or optimize psychological health and well-being. In fact, self-care has been documented in the literature as
a central component of preventing or mitigating professional-related stress (Grise-Owens, Miller, Escobar-Ratliff, &
George, 2018); yet, self-care is commonly considered to be an individual responsibility (Christopher, Christopher,
Dunnagan, & Schure, 2006). Therefore, an effective, all-encompassing self-care routine that is used as a means of
stress reduction can help prevent or minimize the effects of compassion fatigue (Hotchkiss & Lesher, 2018). Faculty
are encouraged to think through a broad range of self-care activities (e.g., gardening; exercising; accessing mental health
resources in order to learn stress reduction techniques; good sleep hygiene and quality sleep; learning about emotion
and problem-focused coping) as a way to maintain adequate to optimal psychological functioning and be intentional
about applying them in their professional and personal lives.
Self-compassion is a more recently discovered construct coined by Neff (2003, p.224) ) as “being kind and
understanding toward oneself during instances of pain or failure, rather than being harshly self-critical, and
recognizing that one’s own experience of imperfection is a part of the human experience.” In other words, we
recognize our own distress, without judgement, while attempting to alleviate it (Beaumont, Durkin, Hollins Martin,
& Carson, 2016; Gilbert, 2009). Practicing self-compassion has been empirically correlated with psychological well-
being (Boellinghaus, Jones, & Hutton, 2012; Germer & Siegel, 2012), and individuals who practice self-compassion
are at less risk for compassion fatigue and burnout (Beaumont et al., 2016; Thompson, Amatea, & Thompson, 2014).
In fact, self-compassion is one of the strongest predictors of both personal and professional self-care practices (Miller,
Lee, Niu, Grise-Owens, & Bode, 2019). Thus, faculty can utilize self-compassion as a metacognitive (i.e., thinking
about one’s thinking) coping strategy (Neff, 2003), whereby faculty are able to identify that the kindness,
understanding, and concern they extend to students should be reciprocated toward oneself and that any psychological
discomfort or pain that’s seen in others should not be treated any less empathically within themselves.
One self-care strategy for practicing self-compassion is through loving-kindness meditation (LKM) (Boellinghaus,
Jones, & Hutton 2013). Loving-kindness meditation involves practicing mindfulness (Tang, Hölzel, & Posner, 2015)
with a mental state of unconditional kindness, warmth and caring toward all, including ourselves (Hoffman,
Grossman, & Hinton, 2011; Totzeck, 2020). Germer and Neff (2013) created an evidenced-based program to bring
mindful self-compassion (MSC) to the general population through teaching a variety of meditations including LKM.
As a coping strategy, LKM has been shown to foster positive emotions (Carson et al., 2005). Free audio and written
meditations can be downloaded at www.CenterForMSC.org.
A second protective factor that functions as a coping strategy to minimize stress reactions and mitigate
compassion fatigue is social support. Specifically, having a positive social support network and a professional social
support network are key for coping during stressful work periods (O’Neill & Morrow, 2001). In these times, these
social networks are connecting virtually via Zoom, or by phone or email. A central aspect of effective social support
is the perception that one feels understood when seeking support from another (Figley, 2013). Therefore, being
intentional about individuals to whom faculty might go to help fulfill emotional needs that foster the experience of
feeling valued is key. This buffers against or minimizes the impact of stress. According to the social convoy model
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(Antonucci, Ajrouch, & Birditt, 2014), each person should aim to have an intimate social sphere comprised of friends
and family members that share in one’s life accomplishments and challenges. As we get older, our social convoy will
retract over time because adults become more selective about the people they invest their time in, but the benefits of
this group will provide a protective layer against stress. With social distancing, it is especially important to be
intentional about connecting to one’s social convoy in order to access positive social support in faculty members’
personal lives. It is important to note that some faculty may experience symptoms that are so intense that they
undermine a faculty member’s ability to function and carry out daily duties and responsibilities. In this case, faculty
members should seek the support of a helping professional.
As part of broader university-wide wellness initiatives, some college and university communities are providing
online trainings, workshops, virtual meetups, and mental health resources to help faculty navigate both their
personhood and professional self through these tumultuous times. Amaya et al. (2019) proposed a “call to action” for
academic institutions to implement systemic initiatives that promote the health and well-being for all in the academic
community: students, faculty, and staff. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, it is paramount for academic institutions to
acknowledge the importance of faculty mental health as a central aspect of student engagement and success (Kennette
& Lin, 2019). In addition, faculty need to utilize the resources available to them. Faculty can practice self-care in the
professional realm by accessing their institution’s social support network and resources. Chatting with colleagues in
your department or colleagues that you enjoyed collaborating with on projects (i.e., social convoy) or across disciplines
via institution-wide offerings can create a space and outlet to be understood, valued, and supported. Giving a voice
to professional inner struggles that other faculty can relate to will help to minimize the impact of compassion fatigue.
Check with your faculty development center, university counseling center or inquire about employee wellness and/or
assistance programs through your Human Resources department. For instance, since faculty began teaching remotely,
the Faculty Development center at Texas State University has been offering a Friday, “Let’s Do Lunch” series,
allowing faculty across departments to talk about the toils of online teaching; thus addressing and validating the
importance of faculty well-being. Considering these options and inquiring if one is appropriate for you is good self-
care. Participating in institution-wide, college, or departmental peer-to-peer support will assist with adaptive coping
and help to buffer against stress, so that you can continue to provide students with your support well after the
pandemic is over.
CONCLUSION
Higher education has been forced into an expedition across uncharted territory due to the sweeping COVID-19
pandemic. While trying to preserve continuity in teaching and learning, instructors are also managing intrapersonal
stress, along with a range of distressed students and their issues. Faculty who are feeling physically, mentally, or
emotional overwhelmed or exhausted due to their students trauma or burdens may be experiencing compassion
fatigue. In order to prevent or lessen the effects of compassion fatigue, faculty can adopt self-care routines and
adaptive coping strategies, and actively engage them. Creating a “menu” of self-care options for oneself that brings a
sense of equanimity (i.e., mental calmness) should be devised, and ideally these options should be written out for
future use. Practicing self-compassion while leaning into one’s personal social convoy and professional social support
network and resources is key as well. Last, faculty need to evaluate their internal (e.g., emotional and psychological)
boundaries, and practice psychologically distancing oneself from interpersonal burdens if they find themselves
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preoccupied with the issues of others. Mindfulness activities and meditation and/or prayer are effective coping
strategies that can help to focus thoughts while reducing stress (Kabat-Zinn, 2005; Donahoo, Siegrist, & Garrett-
Wright, 2018; Spinelli, Wisener, & Khoury, 2019), and in turn can bolster self-compassion (Rabb, 2014). However, if
rumination (i.e., repetitive negative thinking) occurs along with other severe symptoms that are undermining one’s
ability to effectively function then faculty should seek help from a mental health professional.
Acknowledging the effects of compassion fatigue for faculty in higher education is part of a broader, overlooked
subject on faculty mental health and wellness. Faculty personhood encompasses the psychological and emotional
dimensions of being human that we take with us into the classroom with our students. Feeling psychologically
overwhelmed or experiencing emotional distress can illicit consequences for all aspects of the faculty job role,
especially teaching effectiveness. Higher education institutions need to consider the mental health and well-being of
their faculty. The COVID-19 pandemic will require most faculty to practice self-care and effective coping strategies
in order to effectively engage with students. Otherwise, faculty will be pouring from an empty cup.
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Address author correspondence to:
Millie Cordaro, PhD, LPC
Department of Psychology
Texas State University
601 University Drive, San Marcos, Texas, United States 78666-4684
mc71@txstate.edu
... This embarrassment of riches proved stressful for both faculty and the ED team, with the latter scrambling to provide adequate training and support and the former voicing dissatisfaction with the late timing of implementation. While faculty ED participation was more than we could handle in the beginning, by the time the HyFlex classrooms became available for ED, we were already seeing symptoms of compassion fatigue in our faculty, as summarized by Cordaro (2020). Our previously eager faculty were physically and emotionally exhausted, feeling overwhelmed and unable to do more. ...
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... It is essentials for higher education institution to mitigate the potential problem in a wider perspective. Potential intrapersonal psychological and emotional consequences is part of a broader, overlooked issue on faculty mental health and wellness [20]. ...
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