It’s a truism to say that the best leaders are empathetic. They build trust, create connections, and inspire confidence. Empathy, many leaders–and especially Academic Leaders–will tell you, is what drives them to lead, their greatest strength.
So what happens when empathy also becomes a leader’s biggest challenge?
Educators are used to working in emotion-rich environments, but many don’t manage trauma on a daily basis in their communities. In the past two years, however, that’s exactly what every single educator has been doing, and the cumulative impact is undeniable. To understand the experience, we can borrow a useful framework from nursing (like education, a helping profession): compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue happens when a professional who has been a caring and engaged carer loses their “ability to nurture,” as Carla Joinson, who coined the term, wrote in 1992. A decline in energy, engagement, and the ability to care for others emerges when a professional has been exposed to so much distress that they become numb to it. Although compassion fatigue is used frequently to refer to burnout, the two are different: burnout results from increased and unboundaried workplace demands (a fact of life for most Academic Leaders right now!), while compassion fatigue emerges when professionals deal with high levels of emotion, grief, and fear.
Academic Leaders and educators are especially vulnerable to compassion fatigue because they’re so empathetic, and because they rely on their empathy, often instinctively, to guide them in decision-making. When compassion fatigue dulls those empathic instincts, Academic Leaders may struggle to listen and communicate effectively, make decisions, and set priorities.
There are ways to fight compassion fatigue. And yes, one of those ways is the dreaded “self care” that is so easy to prescribe and so hard to perform. We’re not talking about that. Instead, here are three things you can stop doing that can help to restore your empathic reserves:
Even if you’re dealing with compassion fatigue, your empathy is still one of your greatest strengths. Empathic leaders are also resilient. As you continue to push through difficult times, remember that as you turn your compassion outward to your colleagues, students, and community, you can also focus it inward. Empathy, it turns out, is for everyone–even yourself.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)