TIPS FOR REDUCING OR ELIMINATING COMPASSION FATIGUE
BY JEANINE WARD-ROOF AND KATHY GUTHRIE
Recent research demonstrates low retention of profes- sionals in the student affairs field. Although a number of factors contribute to the retention dilemma, two of the most significant causes include the increasing com- plexities of student affairs work and higher levels of crisis management. Given the changing nature of our
work, exploring the concept of compassion fatigue as it relates
to student affairs could provide clues for keeping student affairs
professionals in their positions.
A heightened understanding of research from other fields
on the concept of compassion fatigue can help student
affairs professionals create environments where they can
manage the personal cost of care in student affairs and
develop healthy support mechanisms to help them address
Researchers have defined compassion fatigue as the declining ability to be empathetic and a possible reaction to an individual exposed to suffering. We explored student affairs professionals’ awareness of the compassion fatigue concept and
questioned the strategies used to reduce such fatigue through a
brief online survey this spring. More than 200 participants from
all levels of student affairs offered the following strategies:
1Self-awareness and reflection High levels of self-awareness and reflection are key to
understanding individual reactions to compassion fatigue and
addressing personal needs. Participants noted a high level
of self-awareness was particularly important when striving
to maintain appropriate levels of compassion and empathy.
Reflection also enabled participants to realize each situation
and response as unique and to appreciate the importance of
individual responses to those involved.
2Realistic boundaries and expectations In the current economic climate with shrinking resources, it
is imperative to realize student affairs leaders cannot continue
to expect more from staff and themselves. Although eliminating
programs and services is not ideal, tying decisions to current
data and institutional mission will offer senior student affairs
officers the opportunity to create more realistic expectations
and help themselves and others realize limits. In addition, setting appropriate boundaries helps to move situational response
to the best level and provide optimal support to all involved.
3Distancing self Respondents suggested the need to take time away from
the situation, disconnecting or removing themselves from
the environment to gain a fresh perspective. By distancing
themselves from specific situations, student affairs profession-
als were able to evaluate their own emotions and reactions.
Participants also noted the need to re-energize by focusing on
priorities outside of the work environment that took them away
from the situation, albeit sometimes temporarily.
4Collaboration and communication Professionals suggested collaboration as a strategy for
reducing fatigue. Collaboration can diffuse the burden of
decision-making, enable the processing of situations with others, and create a support system for challenging and encouraging ideas. In addition, varying perspectives could ensure a more
solid response to difficult situations.
5Personal wellness: physical activity and balance Physical activity—running, walking, tennis, basketball,
or playing games with children—was noted as a pivotal way
to help avoid the effects of compassion fatigue. Participants
suggested that exercise helps clear the mind and puts things in
perspective when they are inundated with complex situations.
Maintaining balance was also cited as essential to personal
wellness and avoiding compassion fatigue.
6Laughter and humor Colin Powell once said, “Surround yourself with people
who take their work seriously, but not themselves, those who
work hard and play hard.” Respondents suggest that keeping ones’ sense of humor is pivotal. Appropriately laughing
and displaying humor helps to diffuse the range of emotions
involved in complex situations.
This study illustrates some of the methods student affairs
professionals are using to successfully manage the multiple
complex issues they face in their daily work. Although student
affairs work is different from those fields where professionals
are constantly exposed to suffering, we must remain acutely
aware of the many different types of tragedies we deal with on
our campuses each year. We must continue to build proactive
and protective systems and responses to lead our campus
communities through these unfortunate events.
Jeanine Ward-Roof is dean of students at The Florida
Kathy Guthrie is an assistant professor in the Department
of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at The Florida