February 7, 2019—Is empathy fatigue just another word for burnout or is there something particular about empathy fatigue that is worth leaning into? In the past week I led a professional development session on empathy fatigue and I had two separate and unrelated conversations with professionals around this theme. I have learned over the years that when something appears frequently in my life it is worth paying attention to.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, empathy or compassion fatigue is defined as the “indifference to charitable appeals on behalf of those who are suffering, experienced as a result of the frequency or number of such appeals.” In other words, empathy fatigue is a response by caregivers to repeated requests for help by someone else in need. Empathy fatigue is more typically experienced by physicians, nurses, and other health care providers as their capacity to express empathy for patients is eroded by stress, external performance indicators, and the press to increase efficiency. It is also sometimes called empathy fatigue. However, I think empathy fatigue, or some variant, is experienced by teachers when their calling to serve learners collides with the frequent appeals by learners (expressed and unexpressed) for social, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual support.
Empathy fatigue for educators, much like for health care workers, is more of a systems problem than the work of individual teachers or students. Most teachers I know care deeply about their students. They want to help; that is why they are educators. Teachers don’t set out to experience it and equally so I don’t think most students intend to inflict their teachers with it. Yet empathy fatigue is part of the teaching landscape and is a contributing factor to teacher attrition rates. One underlying social factor that contributes to empathy fatigue is chronic stress. The American Psychological Association reports that a third of workers experience regular and sustained stress. Suicide and rates of depression are rising, in part from stress, according to the Center for Disease Control and surveys from Blue Cross Blue Shield. Within the field of education half of the teaching force has contemplated leaving because of personal and professional stress. Two-thirds of educators in a survey of 5,000 teachers stated that they found their work environment stressful. These statistics may help explain why empathy fatigue can materialize despite the deep sense of calling a teacher holds for her craft. It can happen to the best of teachers who deeply care about the learning and emotional state of their students. In fact, the more a teacher cares the more likely they are to experience empathy fatigue as they dig deep into their empathy tank in response to frequent appeals for assistance from students.
There are several actions a teacher can take to either reduce the likelihood of empathy fatigue or to work their way toward better health and wellness. On an individual basis, mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing and contemplative activities can help. Another workable response to empathy fatigue is keeping a gratitude journal or log. A simple list of things to be grateful for in the teaching day. Maybe it was an instructional breakthrough that opened up a new way to teach a concept. Maybe it was a joke a student told during class. Maybe it is the feeling of gratitude for a colleague who took the time to check in. A variant on the gratitude log is keeping the hand written notes, drawings, and emails from students, parents, or colleagues complimenting some aspect of your teaching. When the days are rough, and those days do occur, looking through the file can be a reminder of your ability to do great things to enhance learning. And most importantly, there is always self-empathy, recognizing that empathy fatigue is a part of what it means to be a teacher, because you care enough to invest your heart in service of another person. You can’t be perfect all the time; imperfection and imperfect care are human qualities.
Beyond individual actions in combating empathy fatigue it is helpful to have a good social network of like-minded colleagues, especially colleagues who know you well enough to recognize if you are not quite yourself as you interact with students. Fellow educators who ask how you are doing, invite you out for a cup of coffee/tea to talk, or shine a light in your darkness reminding you about your calling. A trusted colleague, friend, or partner can recognize the symptoms of empathy fatigue and make you rest and renew your empathy gas tank. As anyone who travels by plane knows you have to put your oxygen mask on first before you can help others in need.
Students can help as well. They are highly tuned to the moods of their teachers and therefore make good empathy fatigue detectors. One of the signs of empathy fatigue is a loss of focus or interest in the other. Students spend large parts of their day in direct contact with teachers, watching their emotional states and anticipating their teaching moves. As such, if they have a strong relationship with their teacher, they can call the teacher out when they are inattentive and wandering, seeming to lose focus and interest in the educational needs of the student. If the teacher is resilient they will recognize the truth of the critique, and if true, admit they were not fully present to the student and take steps to refocus. It is also the case that empathy fatigue for teachers can be the result of trying too hard to reach into the learning heart of the student. Teachers are typically hardwired to help students learn and this is generally an admirable quality. But the shadow side of this gift is that a teacher’s identity and sense of accomplishment can become affixed to the learning performance of students. Yet if for any number of reasons a student resists taking ownership of their learning by constantly asking the teacher for help, the end result can be empathy fatigue. The teacher’s sense of self becomes depleted by the cycle of emotionally and intellectually extending oneself to meet the student’s need combined with minimal or slow student learning outcomes.
Students can also be a source of energy, giving back to the teacher, restocking their empathy tank. Care dynamics are reversed and the student is now helping the teacher. An observant teacher knows which students in their classes are likely to give caring-energy. With that knowledge a empathy fatigued teacher can look ahead into the daily class schedule with a sense of anticipation, not to burden the student with unreasonable and unprofessional expectations, but simply to be present to the mutual joy of teaching and learning. This is a form of positive, rather than negative, projection into the instructional day. Who are the students just as ready to greet you as you are to greet them? After all isn’t this one way to describe good teaching: a shared sense of care for the other? Empathy fatigue is real for teachers but it doesn’t have to blunt the teacher’s call to serve others.