SRU professor coauthors book about compassion fatigue and burnout for education professionals


Molly Mistretta with the book she authored

Molly Mistretta, a Slippery Rock University assistant professor of counseling and development, has coauthored a book, “Overcoming Burnout and Compassion Fatigue in Schools: A Guide for Counselors, Administrators and Educators.”

Jan. 23, 2020

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Early in Molly Mistretta's higher education career, she took note of something she noticed while working in residence life. That "something" - compassion fatigue - would later fuel her research as a Slippery Rock University professor.

Compassion fatigue is the result of mental or physical exhaustion caused by exposure to other people's trauma.

"(As a counselor), you tend to be the first person students come to with problems and sometimes those problems are really big," said Mistretta, an assistant professor of counseling and development. "You're the person who students come to tell about these significant negative experiences. What sort of burden does that put on you?"

Mistretta researched that question in conjunction with Alison DuBois, the director of the Graduate School and associate professor of education at Westminster College. Mistretta earned her undergraduate degree in political science at Westminster College and later became the school's associate dean of students, overseeing residence life.

Mistretta and DuBois presented their research, "When Caring Hurts: Identifying Signs of Burnout and Compassion Fatigue in Education," at the 2017 American Counseling Association's National Conference in San Francisco. Afterward, they were approached by an editor from Routledge, the world's leading academic publisher in the Humanities and Social Sciences. From there, Mistretta and DuBois began coauthoring a book released earlier this year titled "Overcoming Burnout and Compassion Fatigue in Schools: A Guide for Counselors, Administrators and Educators." The book provides research, anecdotal stories and workbook pages to help all education practitioners, from K-12 to higher education, mitigate the stressful effects of working with students with histories of trauma.

"We knew right away we didn't want it to be a textbook," Mistretta said. "We wanted it to be very practical and accessible to busy full-time teachers, (and to be more) like a resource manual."

The duo explain that education professionals are at risk for burnout, compassion fatigue and other forms of secondary or vicarious trauma, because they inherently respond to the needs of students empathy. While helping others is a reward of the job, excessive empathy can transfer the stress of one person to the other.

"The challenge is that a lot of us come to our work (in education) with a real desire to make a difference in students' lives; which is a wonderful thing," Mistretta said. "But when you become so overly invested that you have a hard time drawing boundaries between your work and personal life, that's going to set you up for compassion fatigue."

And as students become increasingly more willing to seek help and share their trauma with teachers, faculty, counselors, coaches and other staff, the expectations for acceptance and responsibility in education are changing.

"There's more exposure and awareness than ever before," Mistretta said. "The attitude for students who experienced trauma used to be that maybe they should take a semester off and (people recommended) sending the student away to deal with (their situation) at home. We are recognizing that, as institutions, we need to be able to work alongside students while they are dealing with issues."

Mistretta said that in order to help students, education professionals must rely on their ability to empathize, but only in moderation or else the burden will impair their work and they will experience burnout. First coined by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, burnout was used to describe the consequences of severe stress in the helping professions, but others, like Christina Maslach, professor emerita of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, define burnout as "a response to the chronic emotional strain of dealing extensively with other human beings, particularly when they are troubled or having problems."

"Burnout is the chronic stress of overwork," Mistretta said. "The thing about burnout is that you can reverse it; you can take time off, better manage your workload or change your responsibilities in order to help you recover. Compassion fatigue is different. It's a response to being exposed to someone else's trauma, and that doesn't just wash off; that story sticks with you and the effects can be mental fatigue and that's hard to recover from. If you get too far down the line, the only thing you can do is change jobs."

According to Mistretta, burnout can lead to compassion fatigue because once someone experiences burnout they're less resilient and unable to cope with stress. Once advanced stages of compassion fatigue are reached, people will unconsciously choose between empathizing to the point of exhaustion and total impairment, or they become desensitized to the trauma and begin treating what was once "people work" as transactional work just to do their job.

In their book, Mistretta and DuBois provide tips for prevention and overcoming burnout and compassion fatigue. The tips include reflecting on "compassion satisfaction," which is the pleasure derived from being able to do a job well; practicing self-care through exercise, meditation and other healthy personal habits; and "low-impact debriefing" when an education professional discusses students' problems with a colleague, preferably a supervisor, and graphic details are kept to a minimum with the focus on the individual and the organization responding with a solution.

"Compassion fatigue and burnout are extremely important to address because they can reduce education professionals' ability to be there for students and create a caring and effective learning environment," Messina said. "Compassion fatigue can rob educators of the joy and passion they bring into the classroom, which allows them to be a positive influence in students' lives."

"(In the field of education), there is an emotional impact to the work that we do," Mistretta said. "The impact is quite high for people working in places where there's a lot of emotional work that goes into the job. There needs to be support so they can continue doing their work and do it in a healthy way. The first step is talking about the difference between regular burnout, from putting a lot of time in the office and feeling tired, versus compassion fatigue and understanding the effects of both and how to overcome them."

For more information about Mistretta's and DuBois' book, click here.

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