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What is Educator Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue, defined by The American Institute of Stress, is “the emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events. It differs from burn-out but can co-exist. Compassion Fatigue can occur due to exposure on one case or can be due to a ‘cumulative’ level of trauma.”

“We have not been directly exposed to the trauma scene, but we hear the story told with such intensity, or we hear similar stories so often, or we have the gift and curse of extreme empathy and we suffer. We feel the feelings of our clients. We experience their fears. We dream their dreams. Eventually, we lose a certain spark of optimism, humor and hope. We tire. We aren’t sick, but we aren’t ourselves.”

The American Institute of Stress
– C. Figley, 1995

Research on Educators

For many years educators have been experiencing burnout and stress from their jobs. Complaining or talking about it has been somewhat tabu. So often the message is, “Stay calm and do your job.” If you talk about this you are considered a weak link and often there is no support for educators who are feeling overwhelmed.

The CDC (Center for Disease Control) states that more than half of U.S. students have experienced some kind of trauma. ACEs Too High, an organization that researches, supports and provides resources for trauma gives an ACEs Science 101 overview of their findings. The key research comprises of:

  • Most people in the U.S. have at least one ACE. Examples include:
    • Alcoholic parent
    • Racism
    • Bullying
    • Witnesses of Violence Outside the Home
    • Physical Abuse
    • Losing a Parent or Caregiver
    • Divorce
  • People with 4 ACEs have a high risk of:
    • Chronic Health Issues
    • Suicide
    • Alcoholism
  • Historical and Generational Trauma can alter how our DNA functions and can be passed on from generation to generation
  • Building on the knowledge that the brain wants to heal is part of the ACEs science

* Read more on the research and findings from CDC’s study →

Learning about trauma and the impact it can have on children and adults is essential for any educator. Secondary traumatic stress (STS) has long been identified as a condition that impacts multiple professions, especially those who are on the front lines.

A study conducted by the University of Montana identified that educators and other school personnel are at risk of STS. The researchers found that 75% of the sample reported at least moderate symptoms of depression. It goes on to say that fatigue begins to cause “burnout” symptoms and can spill over into a person’s personal life. Educators have become similar to social workers as they navigate the needs of students and their families.

It is also important to note that educators could also have their own trauma and this also can be a factor for fatigue. So what can be done to support educators?

Educating Educators

A key to changing culture and providing support for educators is for all involved in educating students is to build an understanding of compassion fatigue. Leaders can provide training to prevent and recognize compassion fatigue and burnout. As compassion fatigue often comes before burnout having a checklist to identify symptoms is critical.

“Clear difference: Compassion fatigue has a more rapid onset while burnout emerges over time. Compassion Fatigue has a faster recovery (less severe, if recognized and managed early).”

Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue1

  • Affects many dimensions of your well-being
  • Nervous system arousal (Sleep disturbance)
  • Emotional intensity increases
  • Cognitive ability decreases
  • Behavior and judgment impaired
  • Isolation and loss of morale
  • Depression and PTSD (potentiate)
  • Loss of self-worth and emotional modulation
  • Identity, worldview, and spirituality impacted
  • Beliefs and psychological needs-safety, trust, esteem, intimacy, and control
  • Loss of hope and meaning=existential despair
  • Anger toward perpetrators or causal events

There are many ways to manage compassion fatigue and self-care is key. Check out these resources for information and programs.


1 “Compassion Fatigue.” The American Institute of Stress, 4 Jan. 2017, www.stress.org/military/for-practitionersleaders/compassion-fatigue.


Learning Explorer Teacher Ambassador,
Jen Gibson is the Co-Founder of BUOY and provides strategic education planning for K-12 districts.

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