Tackling Compassion Fatigue in Education

female teacher experiencing compassion fatigue

Teachers and educators enter the field because they feel called to it, and because they have altruistic motivations to make a lasting and positive impact on the world. Unfortunately, those noble motivations, and all the hard work they inspire, are in constant struggle against many oppressive influences, including compassion fatigue and burnout.

Compassion fatigue is just that — fatigue from over-expending one’s capacity for compassion with others, which leads to burnout — a cumulative and chronic feeling of dissatisfaction and loss of interest. Can having too much compassion cause educators to suffer burnout?

In This Article:

Explaining Compassion Fatigue

Compassion combines empathy and a desire to relieve someone else’s suffering.1 Educators are called to care for the academic as well as emotional needs of students, which sometimes includes helping students with trauma to help them find the right mental space that enables them to focus on learning.2 Thus, showing compassion is a part of the role of an educator and other helping professions.

It is natural to assume that showing compassion can only be a positive thing. However, a number of research studies have indicated that too much compassion or empathy leads to compassion fatigue (related to empathy exhaustion) and burnout.3,4 Further research has added that “over-caring” in education may become self-destructive and lead to compassion fatigue.5 

According to one researcher, “compassion fatigue is a form of burnout characterized by extreme mental, emotional and spiritual exhaustion, and it’s an occupational hazard in the caring professions.”2 Another study asserted that compassion fatigue occurs when one exerts excessive energy, compassion and empathetic care on behalf of others.6 The consequences of compassion fatigue include emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, disconnection, poor job satisfaction and burnout.3

What Is Burnout?

Burnout is a result of chronic job stress. Its symptoms include emotional exhaustion, feelings of reduced professional achievement and desensitization.2,6,7,8 Educators are often expected — or feel called — to provide excessive emotional assistance, such as in the form of superabundant compassion or empathy, in response to students’ increased experiences of trauma and greater emotional needs. Such demands are known to be a risk factor for burnout.6

Research suggests that many educators reflexively empathize with students in distress, but this response contributes to an emotional load that may lead to burnout.7 Stressful workplace interactions also contribute to burnout because they demand that teachers “remain calm when faced with challenges, patient when frustrated, and understanding when met by an unending list of student needs.”7 Furthermore, research indicates that burnout is characterized by a lack of resources for handling emotionally intense events.9

What Are Compassion Fatigue Symptoms?

If you’re wondering whether you’ve experienced compassion fatigue, empathy exhaustion or even burnout, you might refer to this partial list of symptoms:

  • Reduced ability or desire to help others
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of interest in things typically enjoyed
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Heightened feelings of stress

Compassion Fatigue vs. Burnout and Why It Is Happening

Compassion fatigue and burnout have been identified as a major concern in the field of education.6 Compassion and empathy are essential virtues of being an educator, but excessive virtues in this domain can lead to compassion fatigue and burnout.3,4,6 Many educators pour their hearts into their roles and show emotional support, including compassion well beyond the classroom role. Adding to this, many educators do not realize they are being overly compassionate because they view compassion as a positive attribute. Some may also be unaware of how to balance their virtues.

Compassion fatigue and burnout can negatively affect educators’ career performance, personal lives and identity. School administrators must also contend with the consequences of compassion fatigue and burnout, which contribute to staff shortages.3,6,7,10 Research shows the existence of compassion fatigue and burnout in education and the need to take action to address it.1,2,11

How Do We Fix Compassion Fatigue?

Often, compassion fatigue is due to a lack of resources, stressful workplace environments, excessive working hours and increased demands to help and care for others. To combat compassion fatigue, educators should focus on mindfulness and self-care. Setting personal boundaries can help with navigating time for self-care and limits on exhibiting care, compassion and empathy for others. Other suggestions include:

  • Taking breaks
  • Exercising
  • Engaging in something you enjoy
  • Journaling
  • Having a positive mindset
  • Developing positive relationships
  • Talking with someone else
  • Setting boundaries
  • Balancing work and life

However, many educators struggle to find a work–life balance and give everything they have to their profession. So, what else can be done?

Cultivating Practical Wisdom

Practical wisdom is an intellectual virtue that guides other moral virtues, especially when virtues collide in morally complex situations. To make the right decision, one must be mindful of the context and the perspectives of others, as well as balancing virtues. Practical wisdom may be a mode for educators to find a balance of compassion and focus on the right actions for all in making decisions that lead to living well.12

Educational practice involves morally complex situations that demand educators’ awareness, compassion and good sense.5,13 Educators must assess situations, determine courses of action and decide the best approach to follow. A precursor to knowing the best approach is wisdom — or, as Aristotle called it, phronesis (also known as practical wisdom).12,14 Practical wisdom guides the moral virtues so one can make the “right” decision for society — not just for oneself — by thinking about the context of a situation and focusing on the idea of the good life one wishes to live when acting in pursuit of it.12,14

The situations educators face require all types of virtues, such as compassion, honesty, judgement, reasoning and justice. Educators need practical wisdom to make the right decision regarding which virtue to employ.14 Part of practical wisdom includes understanding the golden mean of virtue. Aristotle’s view of the golden mean of virtues refers to the need to balance virtues — not too much (excess) or too little (deficit) — as well as to understand how much of a virtue may be needed to make morally right decisions in any given situation.15 For educators, an excess of compassion when dealing with moral situations may come at a cost.

As indicated, excessive compassion and empathy often leads to compassion fatigue and burnout, which directly affect educators, students and the school environment.3,6,7 The golden mean of virtues directly aligns with the consequences of excess virtues, such as compassion and empathy, as well as the need for an equilibrium in educational contexts.

When educators are confronted with a moral dilemma, they may be torn between competing virtues in the decision to act, or even the balancing of excess versus deficit virtue.16 When one maintains the golden mean of a virtue within practical wisdom, part of the process is understanding when to employ the virtue based on the situational context and the drive to do what is right in that situation.12,15 

Using practical wisdom is a way of handling moral situations,12 and in turn may prove effective in reducing educator burnout due to insufficient resources for handling highly emotional and morally complex events.9 Because one potential cause of educator burnout and compassion fatigue is an imbalance of virtues,3,6,7 enhancing practical wisdom in educators may lead to a balance of compassion and empathy,15 directly reducing rates of compassion fatigue and burnout among educators.

Final Thoughts on Compassion Fatigue vs. Burnout

Compassion fatigue is a widely attested phenomenon among educators that can lead to burnout— which is detrimental to educators and students alike. Educators may be able to avoid compassion fatigue by establishing a healthy balance of compassion and practical decision making while considering the common good. Thus, educators should approach each situation with practical wisdom by following the tips listed below:

  • Pause and reflect on the situation — be mindful
  • Consider the virtues in collision and the common good
  • Focus on boundaries
  • Consider all involved and the needs
  • Align your desire for the good life with your decisions
  • Make a choice that exhibits balance of virtues

At Grand Canyon University, we understand the power of compassion and empathy in education, but we also know the importance of fostering practical wisdom to help avoid compassion fatigue and burnout. If you are being called to the teaching profession, GCU’s College of Education is here to help you get started in the right degree program for you. Complete the form on this page to learn more about joining our education community.

1  PACEs in Education. Caring without Tiring: Dealing with compassion fatigue burnout in teaching. Retrieved Oct. 20, 2023.  

2 Erdman, S., Colker, L. J. and Winter, E. C. (2020, July). Preventing Compassion Fatigue: Caring for Yourself. YC Young Children. 75(3), pp. 28–35. Retrieved March 25, 2022. 

Raimondi, T. P. (2019). CF in Higher Education: Lessons From Other Helping Fields. Change. 51(3), pp. 52–58. DOI: 10.1080/00091383.2019.1606609.

4 Wagaman, M. A. Geiger, J., Shockley, C., & Segal, E. (2015). The Role of Empathy in Burnout, Compassion Satisfaction, and Secondary Traumatic Stress among Social Workers. Social Work. 60(3), pp. 201–209. DOI: 10.1093/sw/swv014.

5 Johnson, M. M. (2020, October 1). Self-Care: The Antidote to Compassion Fatigue. Educational Leadership. Retrieved on March 29, 2022. 

Pérez-Chacón, M., Chacon, A., Borda-Mas, M., and Avargues-Navarro, M.L. (2021). Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Compassion Satisfaction as Risk/Protective Factors from BO and CF in Healthcare and Education Professionals. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 18(2). DOI: 10.3390/ijerph18020611.

Dubois, A. L. and Mistretta, M. A. (2019, September 25). Overcoming Burnout and Compassion Fatigue in Schools: A Guide for Counselors, Administrators, and Educators. New York, NY: Routledge. 

8 Pehlivan, T. and Güner, P. (2018). Compassion Fatigue: The known and unknown. Journal of Psychiatric Nursing / Psikiyatri Hemsireleri Dernegi. 9(2), pp. 129–134. DOI: 10.14744/phd.2017.25582.

9 Iancu, A. E., Rusu, A., Maroiu, C., Pacurar, R., and Maricutoiu, L. P. (2017). The Effectiveness of Interventions Aimed at Reducing Teacher Burnout: a Meta-Analysis. Educ Psychol Rev. 30:373–396 DOI: 10.1007/s10648-017-9420-8

10 Delaney, M. C. (2018). Caring for the caregivers: Evaluation of the effect of an eight-week pilot mindful self-compassion (MSC) training program on nurses’ compassion fatigue and resilience’. PLoS ON. 13(11), pp. 1–20. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0207261.

11 Sharp Donahoo, L. M., Siegrist, B. and Garrett-Wright, D. (2018). Addressing Compassion Fatigue and Stress of Special Education Teachers and Professional Staff Using Mindfulness and Prayer. Journal of School Nursing. 34(6), pp. 442–448. DOI: 10.1177/1059840517725789.

12 Kristjansson, K. (2017, February 15). Aristotelian Character Education. New York, NY: Routledge

13 Dalla Costa Ames, M. C. F. and Serafim, M. C. (2019). Teaching-learning Practical Wisdom (Phronesis) in Administration: A Systematic Review. RAC - Revista de Administração Contemporânea. 23(4), pp. 564–586. DOI: 10.1590/1982-7849rac2019180301.

14 Bohlin, K. E. (2022). The Practical Wisdom Framework: A Compass for School Leaders. Journal of Education. 202(2), 156-165.

15 Cunningham, S. B. (1999). Getting it Right: Aristotle’s “Golden Mean” as Theory Deterioration. Journal of Mass Media Ethics. 14(1), p 5-15. DOI: 10.1207/S15327728JM140101.

16 Kristjansson, K., Darnell, C. Fowers, B., Moller, F., Pollard, D. and Thoma, S. (2020, April 7). New Report: Phronesis: Developing a Conceptualisation and an Instrument. Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, Birmingham. Retrieved on March 29, 2022.


Approved by the assistant director of the Canyon Center for Character Education on Sept. 20, 2023.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.