This post is written by Françoise Mathieu, the founder of Compassion Fatigue Solutions and one of the leaders of Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma education in North America. She’s also author of The Compassion Fatigue Workbook.
I grew up in a family of educators. My parents moved from Montreal to the high arctic in the early 1960s and worked in a variety of schools in very remote Inuit communities for the following decades. Over the years, my father was a teacher and then became school principal, then superintendent and eventually director general of an entire region. He traveled extensively for work, visiting numerous villages for a third of each year, dealing with labor disputes, financial cutbacks and the complex societal challenges facing First Nations communities. My mother co-developed one of the very first teacher training programs for Inuit women in Canada.
Needless to say, my parents were very dedicated and hard-working. Education reform and the challenges of the work was daily conversation in our household. Working as educators in small communities presented many challenges and rewards: our house was often the informal hotel, food bank and shelter, and villagers would frequently knock on our door for advice or support.
Are you living in the community that you serve?
If you live and work in the same community, you may have experienced something similar: you go to the grocery store on a Saturday in your sweatpants, and a parent accosts you for advice on their child’s problematic learning difficulties. You go to a party and are immediately grilled on your thoughts about educational policies or the best ways to beat the SATS.
How do you find balance between work and your private life?
I would say, in hindsight, that my parents were frequently completely exhausted at night, and did not know a thing about work-life balance. Being from the War Generation, born in the 1940s, their cohort had not learned about the importance of balance and self-care. For them, you worked until you fell down, and then you got up again and worked some more. They had very little time for themselves. This was the norm among the educators that I knew.
So how can we find balance working in the education field? How do we learn to set limits so that we can bring our best selves to work and yet not burn out? How do we juggle the competing demands of our home lives and careers?
Notions of self-care are fairly new to the education field. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1980s that researchers started investigating the concept of work-related burnout among mental health professionals and nurses. Compassion fatigue, the emotional and physical exhaustion that can lead to a shift in our ability to experience empathy for others is a concept that emerged in the 1990s and lead to the growth of an entirely new field exploring provider wellness.
Here’s what we now know: we cannot expect to work in highly demanding and frequently under-resourced environments without taking some active steps to maintain our emotional and physical health. Some workplaces have implemented some very successful workplace wellness initiatives and we have featured them in our article “Beyond Kale and Pedicures”.
The good news is that we now have over 25 years of research that map out what works and steps that we can each take to stay well. I have written extensively on this topic in my book The Compassion Fatigue Workbook and related articles.
Here are my top five favorites:
What Works? 5 Key Steps
Step one: Take stock
Cheryl Richardson wrote an outstanding book called Take Time for your Life in 1990 which provides a great self-assessment checklist called “What’s draining you?”. Richardson invites readers to identify the main drains on their energy: relationships, environment, body mind and spirit, work and money. Completing this checklist allows you to decide where to begin. Which of these areas is causing you the most stress at the moment? Which area shows the most possibility of improvement?
Step two: Identify your warning signs
How do you know you’re headed for trouble? What are your most recurrent physical warning signs? What about emotional reactions? Have you noticed some predictable behavioral patterns that show up when you’re overloaded? Learning to recognize your top three warning signs can help you catch things early before you become too depleted.
Step three: Pick your battles at work
The field of education is complex, and frequently under-resourced. Some of us deal with these realities more successfully than others. If you work with a colleague or a team that is frequently negative or engage in constant office gossip or nay saying, consider making more strategic alliances in the workplace. Venting once in a while is fine, daily gripe sessions bring nothing constructive to the workplace.
Step four: develop a community of support
Research has shown that social support is one of the best strategies to address compassion fatigue and burnout. Who are your accountability partners? Who do you spend time with at work and at home? Can they be there to help you stay on target with your self-care goals?
Step five: Reassess where you are at regularly
I recently wrote a new year’s resolution blog post on my website: www.tendacademy.ca where I discuss my lack of enthusiasm for new year’s resolutions. Rather than making big commitments once a year, I prefer to have weekly tweaks and adjustments. On Sundays, each week, I take gentle stock: how am I doing? What needs more attention? What needs tweaking?
My parents excelled in their careers, but it took a significant toll on their health and their personal lives. I look back on their work with admiration but also see a cautionary tale of working without balance. We know better now. Where will you start?