Preventing Compassion Fatigue and Burnout in Higher Education


The first in a series of tools to prevent burnout in student-facing roles in higher ed.

Over the last 18 years of being in a higher education environment, I have witnessed the growth of burnout and compassion fatigue among student-service professionals.

Indeed, it is an element of any profession in which we work in the service of others, and I find it particularly true if our work is aligned with our purpose and passion. To work in student services is to have a deep sense of commitment to our upcoming generation of workers, parents, volunteers and world-changers.

To have our heart closely linked to our work is to present unique challenges, challenges which may interfere with our ability to thrive and sustain ourselves in our careers, which is why I wanted to write this article today.

With this series of articles, I hope to provide you with some professional tools (and mindset shifts) that help you ameliorate burnout in your own roles. So let’s get started.

Changes in the advising environment have created complexity in our roles: Growing scope (and student populations.) Shrinking staff and budgets.  We are also seeing greater complexity in the questions and concerns our students bring to us, and more layers to their conversations, including mental wellness and more holistic definitions of success (which I think is a huge leap forward for society, that students feel more able to open up.)

Having employed coaching models in my work with students to help them achieve academic success, I have come to believe that these same models can be used to great effect in higher education with student-facing staff.

Creation of a Safe Container:

A coach is a mindful creator of a confidential, non-judgemental and stigma-free space, where they work to support the client in moving forward, and achieving their unique conceptions of success.

This isn’t a background piece. It is explicitly mentioned in the first meeting with a client. The coach, as a listener, gives the client space not only to share their problems, but also define what success would mean for them, and how they want to feel walking away from the appointment.

Advisors have limited amounts of time in their appointments with students, and the norm is to jump into one with the question “what can I do for you?” but the creation of a supportive space and setting a tone for the conversation can be achieved even with a simple declaration: The advisors’ goals for the session and acknowledgement that they are a partner and advocate of the students’ success, that this is a confidential and safe container in which to chat and that it is a non-judgemental space. This simply sentence can completely shift a students’ approach to the appointment.

The conscious creation of a confidential, non judgemental and stigma-free, supportive space goes a long way toward creating a rapporal that allows the student to share the deeper information that we need, and in subsequent appointments (if that is the nature of your advising) get to the root cause of their academic challenges.

(Of course respecting the professional boundaries and scope of our roles as advisors) we can make a deeper connection to students (and feel a deeper sense of purpose in our work with these genuine interactions. I see advisors quickly burnout when do not have a habit of resetting and setting intentions for each appointment. This practice drops off as we get caught up in making appointment notes, working with our booking systems or scrambling to work on a different project or run to a meeting.

We also need to talk about the impact that setting the tone of a meeting has. When we set the tone of the appointment as one of support, moving forward and upward,it creates for us as advisors, the ability to frame our work positively instead of negatively. It is easy to take on a mindset of crisis, problems and stress in our careers and as compassion burnout rears its head, we can lose the ability to approach each student situation as unique and begin applying our background narratives to each appointment – but by making practice a habit it reminds us to shift our own mindset and energy. It also forces us to check in on our current state.

I truly believe with a bit of work and effort, it is possible at the beginning of each appointment to intentionally shift from a perspective of stress and problems, to one of opportunity and growth by using the power of language, by taking a thought and putting it out into the world through the creative power of speech.

If this still feels a bit far fetched, I’d ask you this: Do you think students and your peers can sense when you are working from a place of stress and problem solving, versus opportunity and growth? I can say right now that students and co-workers can pick up on this subtle change in energy. You can pick up on it too, because living in these two different places has different effects on your work day. Think about whether you take your breaks, choose good foods, maintain focus and motivation. Do those things happen in the former mindset or the latter mindset?

I hope this article provides you with some food for thought. Whether you are an advisor, higher education professional or someone who works in a position of human service, think about what declarations you make – for your self and your client – at the beginning of each appointment, and what practices you currently have to set your energy to one of opportunity, support and growth.

It’s a wonderful energy to work in, not only for your clients but for yourself.

Please, leave your thoughts in the comments and do share how you reset your energy and prevent burnout!


Originally published on Linked In

Written by Carina Huggins, MSS, ACC – The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and come solely from the author’s perspective – they do not reflect the views of the author’s employer or organization.


Published by Carina

Instagram expert strategist, professional life elevation coach, writer.

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