HealthJuly 06, 2020

Compassion fatigue: Being among the elephants in the room

Here we'll examine the issue of care from our perspective as faculty caregivers and how the labor of providing care is both essential and minimized within academia.

By Amber Welborn, PhD, RN
Meredith R. Gringle, PhD, MPH

In our last piece, we argued that the current COVID-19 crisis shows how hierarchies in academia keep us from effectively caring for our students and colleagues: “The elephant in the room is that the POWER HIERARCHIES OF EDUCATION IMPACT THE SINCERE IMPLEMENTATION OF CARE.” Here we’ll examine the issue of care from our perspective as faculty caregivers and how the labor of providing care is both essential and minimized within academia. 

More than an inconvenience and challenge, COVID-19 has been a traumatic event for many. Institutional responses have acknowledged the moment and have scrambled to offer assistance and encouragement. However, there are important differences between general, impersonal communications, and hashtags offering hope and celebrating institutionally-affiliated “heroes” and individualized, tailored support that connects to specific needs. Our students were searching for authentic, compassionate faculty who could talk to them about difficult issues like suddenly becoming an “essential worker” in jobs that put their health at risk, losing their jobs and worrying about paying bills and rent, losing on-campus housing, coping with COVID-19 related deaths among family and friends and in their larger communities, mental health challenges, and, of course, trying to keep up with coursework.

Faculty who already had reputations as “nice” and accessible found their email inboxes flooded with students who needed support. For many of us, caring for our students is central to teaching and mentoring. We want to have open doors (or in the case of distance learning, open inboxes) as part of an ethic of teaching that is based on nurturing our students in and out of the classroom. While this approach can be personally satisfying for faculty, it is also labor intensive in a way that often goes unrecognized within academia. During our current crisis, the emotional labor placed upon caring faculty increased exponentially in part because more students had needs. However, it also became clear that care is thought of as more of a personality trait than part of the work of being a faculty member. Positioning care as an individual characteristic made it tacitly acceptable to choose not to extend/provide care, creating even more work for the carers among us. “If I don’t care, who will?” has become a kind of exhausted refrain.

Caring for students represents an increased workload and carries the risk of compassion fatigue leading to burnout among faculty who fulfill this need. Care work also may put pressure on other, more acknowledged, responsibilities such as course instruction, research activities, and pursuit of funding. While many colleges and universities emphasize their commitment to student-centered care, faculty (particularly those on the tenure track at research-oriented institutions) are often assessed using standards and metrics that don’t offer “credit” for care. This can create a situation in which some faculty pull away from care because it represents invisible work, and others may pull away to keep from being deluged with care work that is not only undervalued but also unequally distributed.

As we wrote previously, we are especially concerned with what COVID-19 shows about the overall role of academia as a caring institution. We know that change takes time, but this moment offers us a chance to consider how to meaningfully reframe and reposition care to better serve all members of our academic community. Some ideas include:

Think big

  • Make an institution-wide commitment to understanding care as important work.
  • Consider how institutional policies can be tweaked to recognize caring as part of the role of faculty.
  • Make care an expectation not an option.
  • Think about policies that encourage a more equal distribution of care work.
  • If possible, find ways to compensate for/reward care work.
  • Remember that care is not only an individual-level issue; self-care is important but will be less effective without institutional commitment and buy-in.

Go deep

  • Routinize checking in with students to understand their challenges and needs.
  • Implement wrap around care provision services and make sure faculty know how to connect students to resources.
  • Use social media to raise awareness about support and care that is available.
  • Be open and honest about compassion fatigue and burn-out.

Recognize differing needs

  • Staff, administrators, students, and faculty have a variety of needs; one size care will not fit all.
  • Don’t forget about online/distance students, out of sight must not mean out of mind.

Though stressful and challenging, COVID-19 also provides us an opportunity to consider what care looks like at our institutions and to reconsider how care work is viewed, distributed, and recognized. We owe it to our students and to our wider community to acknowledge that care is valuable both as labor and as support. We must think about how to ensure that our institutions find ways to care that doesn’t just depend on individual actions and behaviors but instead integrate care into all aspects of the university experience.