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What is compassion fatigue?

And how does it differ from burnout?

Compassion fatigue is the emotional and physical exhaustion that can affect professionals whose work requires them to help and support others. This can occur directly after a specific event, or it can occur as a result of many experiences over time.

Burnout is the result of consistent workplace stress (long hours, lack of control, unmanageable workload, lack of support, lack of role clarity, etc.) that extends over a period of time.

Signs and symptoms of burnout and compassion fatigue: feeling physically and/or emotionally drained, reduced efficiency, absenteeism, difficulty sleeping, and mental health challenges such as experiencing anxiety and depression.

While the signs and symptoms are similar the causes, as defined above, are quite different. Compassion fatigue can lead to burnout, particularly if the compassion fatigue is enduring over time. Alternatively, one can experience burnout without compassion fatigue at all.

The roles and responsibilities of ECEs, as outlined by the Government of Canada’s Job Bank (click here for reference), are as follows:

  • Develop and implement child-care programs that support and promote the physical, cognitive, emotional and social development of children;
  • Lead activities by telling or reading stories, teaching songs, taking children to local points of interest and providing opportunities to express creativity through the media of art, dramatic play, music and physical activity;
  • Plan and maintain an environment that protects the health, security and well-being of children;
  • Assess the abilities, interests and needs of children and discuss progress or problems with parents and other staff members;
  • Observe children for signs of potential learning or behavioural problems and prepare reports for parents, guardians or supervisor;
  • Guide and assist children in the development of proper eating, dressing and toilet habits;
  • Establish and maintain collaborative relationships with co-workers and community service providers working with children;
  • May plan and organize activities for school-age children in child-care programs before and after regular school hours;
  • May supervise and coordinate activities of other early childhood educators and early childhood educator assistants.

Of the many aspects of an ECEs role, “caring for children” isn’t directly listed. It is, however, implicitly expected that ECEs care for, and about, the children in their ELCC spaces. In fact, the ‘motherly, caring’ nature of our female-dominated ELCC workforce has been leaned upon as not a professional requirement but an expectation. This is true of other professions that require a person to support and help others. As a result of this expectation, many ELCC professionals are unaware they’re experiencing compassion fatigue.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), an American organisation, reviews the concepts of burnout and compassion fatigue in their article, “Preventing Compassion Fatigue: Caring for Yourself.” In addition to a review of the concepts, NAEYC provides a clear list of ways we can alleviate and prevent compassion fatigue as educators. These self-care strategies include:

  • Respecting your own basic needs (physical, social, mental, emotional spiritual);
  • Cultivating mindfulness;
  • Reframing negative thoughts;
  • A guide to creating your own self-care action plan.

Click here to review this article on your own time.

This NAEYC article reinforces a lot of what is reviewed in our workplace wellness resource - click here if you want to learn more about how the two are linked!


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