Mehvash Ali, American University of Sharjah
Shantalea Johns, Wayne State University
Students depend on academic advisors for compassionate care and empathy during critical points in their academic and personal lives. Students may visit advisors to check their progress towards a degree or look for quality advising support when faced with unmanaged stress, untreated mental health conditions, imposter syndrome, or advice on juggling school schedules with other family or work-related responsibilities (Habley, 1994). Regardless of the reason for the visit, students rightly expect empathy, genuine care, and compassion from their academic advisors. As with all forms of intervention, advising during a crisis situation seeks to promote positive growth and minimize the chances of a prolonged disruption in a student’s college education. However, over time, academic advisors may begin to experience emotional, physical, and spiritual exhaustion from constantly witnessing and absorbing the difficulties of students. These symptoms can cause compassion fatigue.
Figley (1995) explains that compassion fatigue develops as a self-protective measure that reduces our capacity or interest in bearing the suffering of others. Identifying compassion fatigue and developing self-care strategies within advising training and development can help advisors pay attention to their emotional state and allow time for reflection and healing. Stamm (2012) developed a measure of compassion fatigue and compassion satisfaction that is available for free to the public through www.proqol.org. This 30 item assessment can be useful for advisors to measure the positive and negative aspects of their professional lives and to identify any emerging symptoms of compassion fatigue.
Some symptoms of compassion fatigue include being in a state of tension, decreased satisfaction, high anxiety, pervasive negative attitudes, and isolation or withdrawal (Showalter, 2010). Figley (2002), associated compassion fatigue with being overwhelmed, irritable, and impatient. Compassion fatigue has also been associated with physical symptoms such as sleep disturbances, appetite changes, and hypervigilance (Figley, 2002). Portnoy (2011) reported that long-term results of compassion fatigue can cause low productivity, absenteeism, and apathy.
Given the level of stress and fatigue faced by academic advisors, it is essential to consider some self-care strategies that can mitigate their effects. The relational component of the NACADA Academic Advising Core Competencies Model (as explained by Farr & Cunningham, 2017) stresses the role of self-assessment and development as part of effective advising practices. Therefore, it is crucial for advisors to periodically reflect on their personal wellbeing as it will directly impact the quality of care they provide to their students. Impairment in an advisor’s health and functioning can diminish their efficacy as an academic advisor. According to Harr, Brice, Riley, and Moore (2014), performance at work and personal relationships can be affected if compassion fatigue is not checked. Proper professional self-care can be seen as an essential responsibility that advisors have towards their students.
The field of psychology has significant research in the area of self-care practices that can help mental health professionals prevent compassion fatigue. Academic advisors can effectively utilize this body of literature and the strategies typically employed by a mental health professional. Richards, Campenni, and Muse-Burke (2010) noted that the frequency of engagement in self-care activities and the value assigned to self-care was associated with overall well-being. Self-care can be as uncomplicated as eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and seeking peer support. It can also involve creative endeavors that facilitate self-expression such as journaling, gardening, cooking, painting, etc. Bradley, Whisenhunt, Adamson, and Kress (2013) discussed some creative techniques to promote self-care for counselors. Religious or spiritual activities can all be part of an advisor’s self-care routine. A variety of strategies to nurture self-care have been noted by Weiss (2004) in her book Therapist’s Guide to Self-Care. Research in this area has led to the identification of two critical components of self-care that have the most impact in preventing compassion fatigue: mindfulness and self-compassion.
Mindfulness is a state of conscious awareness of self (emotions, thoughts, and behaviors), the environment, and how the two interact. In their book Mindfulness for Therapists, Zarbock, Lynch, Ammann, and Ringer (2014) identified the five elements of mindfulness as
- concentrating (being fully present and aware of what one is doing rather than operating on auto-pilot);
- observing (noticing inner experience of thoughts and feelings as well as what one is smelling, seeing, etc.);
- describing (naming in simple words and phrases what is being observed);
- non-reacting (inhibiting impulse to automatically react to internal and external stimuli and choosing to simply follow); and
- non-judging (resisting urges to ascribe value labels to experiences).
Their book suggests several activities for therapists that can be used to increase mindfulness. These activities can be beneficial for academic advisors as well.
Richards et al. (2010) found that mindfulness, as a function of one’s cognitions, emotions, behaviors, and the environment, is a significant mediator between self-care and well-being. By keenly observing how your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors interact with the environment, you can begin to gain an understanding of the ebb and flow of your experiences without under- or over-identifying with anyone’s experience in particular. Additionally, Christopher et al. (2011) found that providing mindfulness training to counselors and psychotherapists resulted in long-lasting improvements in physical, emotional, cognitive, and interpersonal well-being. They also reported that therapists who went through this training more frequently incorporated mindfulness into their case conceptualizations and therapeutic interventions with clients. Christopher and Maris (2010) found that student counselors undergoing mindfulness training were better able to handle silences in therapy, have lower internal stress, and were better able to tolerate difficult emotions from their clients.
Expanding on the concept of mindfulness, Neff (2011) stated that mindfulness along with feelings of shared humanity and kindness towards oneself lead to self-compassion. She defined self-compassion as being gentle and sympathetic towards one-self as opposed to being harsh and critical. She stressed the value of accepting (neither ignoring nor ruminating) one’s own imperfections with kindness as part of a shared human condition. Research summarized by Neff (2011) suggested that “self-compassion provides greater emotional resilience and stability than self-esteem” since self-esteem involves a critical evaluation of one-self while self-compassion provides individuals with a “foundation of positive self-regard” (p. 9). Newsome, Waldo, and Gruszka (2012) stated that by “changing the way people relate to their experiences and increasing their self-compassion, they can change the way they perceive their circumstances, thereby lessening the impact of those circumstances on their wellbeing and reducing stress” (p. 299). Patsiopoulos and Buchanan (2011) found that counselors who practice self-compassion not only report improved well-being and a deepened connection to humanity, but professionally they report improvements in efficacy, healthier boundaries, realistic expectations of self, and better self-correction if needed.
With the precipitating events of college life and the consequences of prolonged exposure to high levels of stress experienced by students, it is not surprising that advisors themselves can experience compassion fatigue. Given the risks associated with compassion fatigue and the impact it can have on personal and professional effectiveness, self-care can be seen as a professional responsibility of advisors. Conscious awareness of one’s own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors and the ways in which those interact with the environment can lead to long-lasting positive effects on well-being. Similarly, cultivating kindness towards oneself leads to resilience and healthier boundaries. By creating proactive programming that contains components of mindfulness and self-compassion into advising training and development activities, advisors can rejuvenate and broaden their understanding of the need for self-care.
Director, Academic Support Center
American University of Sharjah
Academic Services Officer III
Wayne State University
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Cite this article using APA style as: Ali, M. & Johns, S. (2018, December). Compassion fatigue and self-care for academic advisors. Academic Advising Today, 41(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]