Burned Out: Stories of Compassion Fatigue

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The emotional labor and long hours from the pandemic's upheaval of higher education have left many instructional designers overworked and burned out. With more work ahead, these members of the campus community need support, empathy, and resources.

Burned Out: Stories of Compassion Fatigue
Credit: Lightspring / © 2020

In January, one of us, Patrice, wrote an opinion piece called "The Emerging Story of Burnout in Educational Design," in which she highlighted the increased demands of and expectations put on professionals in this field.1 She also underscored experiences shared by many instructional designers, which include a lack of respect and not having their voices heard. Little did any of us know that a few short weeks later, instructional designers would become the lifeboat that would enable faculty to transition to emergency remote learning—in some cases, in just a few days. Often this came at a high price for the designers, many of whom worked fifteen-hour days, seven days a week. While we all cheered at a job well done, with success being defined as continuity of learning, many never got a break since they needed to support faculty and students during the transition.

When we reviewed COVID-19 contingency plans across various institutions for the fall semester (online, hybrid, HyFlex, blended, etc.), we found that all options needed significant contributions from instructional designers. Did learning designers do themselves a disservice by stepping up and delivering in the spring, thereby creating the impression that larger teams weren't necessary? With so many budget cuts, hiring freezes, and expected declines in enrollment, would there be money to hire the needed resources? Would administrators understand the high demand and need for such support?

To obtain additional perspectives on these challenges, during the summer we interviewed five individuals who work across various roles within instructional design, collecting their stories of burnout2 and compassion fatigue. (For this article, we have changed their names.) Their candid reports bear witness to the difficulties being faced by so many people during the pandemic, and their stories also speak to the work being done on the front lines of higher education in the midst of this crisis.


Many of us entered the instructional design profession because we care deeply about the student learning experience and want to support faculty through thoughtful and intentional course development. We may have worked under tight deadlines, with occasional long nights or weekend work, and, on more than one occasion, have had to put out a fire. Recently, though, we've been in a constant state of "being on." Rather than working with a limited number of faculty on a few courses, we presently find ourselves developing and supporting sometimes hundreds of courses. "There's a feeling of urgency with everything you can think of now. Every time something happens, it feels like it's an emergency and has to be dealt with immediately," shared Stacey. The unpredictable world that we currently inhabit has turned many lives upside-down, with everyone needing help, feeling stressed about what's been lost, and just needing someone to listen and care. On top of the already extensive list of job responsibilities that make us feel like a Swiss Army knife, we have now added to our emotional labor by becoming caregivers at a time when we most need care ourselves. For many of us, this has led to compassion fatigue.3 The instructional designers we spoke with mentioned the difficulties they have in balancing work and life. "It's hard to say no, because faculty are stressed and we care. How do you say no?" pondered Robert.

An unexpected outcome of our current role is emotional labor.4 Elle mentioned, "I tend to experience burnout when I meet with faculty who are very frustrated with teaching online, concerned about student engagement, and so on. They often take their frustration out on me by venting, sometimes in an aggressive way, and they get upset if they're struggling to learn the [learning management system]." Complicating matters, emotional labor is frequently associated with gender:

In an analysis of 183 different studies spanning 15 countries and dozens of occupations, women were significantly more likely to feel emotionally exhausted. In their quest to care for others, women often sacrifice themselves. For every 1,000 people at work, 80 more women than men burn out—in large part because they fail to secure their own oxygen masks before assisting others.5

This imbalance rings true for Aretha, who reported, "Gender absolutely plays a role. [As women,] we are conditioned to not say no. Part of it is that if I say my job is eight to four and I close my computer, then two other people are going to have to pick up my work. Part of our nurturing nature prevents us from doing that. My previous supervisor would go out every day, and he always said, 'You need to take a break,' and I said, 'But there is so much work.' We never step away; we pride ourselves on working through lunch. I am hurting myself, and we need to rethink how we do things." This all leads to learning designers taking on tasks and work that is invisible to others.

Invisible Time

College and university administrators likely don't understand the number of hours that it takes to do the job that instructional designers perform on a daily basis. Prior to the pandemic, this amount of work was leading to burnout, and now, in a COVID-19 world, with the increased need for services that only instructional designers, academic technologists, and faculty centers for professional excellence can offer, we found that these professionals are giving more of their time than ever before. "Despite the number of hours you're expected to work on salary, you still work until the job is done. That means uncompensated hours of work, exhaustion, stress, trying to do five things at the same time, health issues, and adverse effects on the family," Aretha said.

Aretha elaborated further: "There is no explicit expectation that you are available twenty-four/seven, but faculty reach out at all hours and panic if you don't answer. Those in power don't really know the number of hours an [instructional designer] puts in. Faculty [sit at the top of the] pecking order, and we are expected to just deal with it. What I see happening is that the [instructional designers] are asked to produce and do. Faculty and administrators don't fully think about the number of hours these people put in." Many of the interviewees expressed that the long hours they were working were causing stress in their personal lives and exhaustion, and although Jacque suggested that her institution is very flexible and supportive, she personally still overworks because otherwise "the work doesn't get done."

When COVID-19 caused institutions to move to emergency remote teaching in the spring of 2020, instructional designers were asked to very quickly support faculty with the transition online. Many faculty and instructional designers work under contracts that preclude working during the summer months, and that limitation posed a threat to how the work would be accomplished in preparation for fall. Even so, none of the instructional designers we interviewed were able to take time off this summer, and the increased demand and time spent working on course design wasn't compensated equitably either. When asked about adding support or additional staff to help with the increase in labor, Robert noted that, in the beginning, supervisors tried to support staff by asking what other work could be temporarily taken off their plates. As things have continued, this is no longer the case, and there have been no discussions of hiring or ways to increase capacity. Aretha said that "unless there is a medical reason, you are expected not to take time off." She told the story of a colleague who feared she had contracted COVID-19 and contacted her supervisor to go home, but she was told to stay in her office and work. "They don't say, 'No, you can't take time off,' but what they say is, 'Really, you are asking for time off now?'" Similarly, Maggie shared a story of an intern at her university in New York City who became ill with COVID-19 and struggled with persistent symptoms for nearly eight months. This intern was only able to take her two weeks' of vacation to recover, and for a long time she worked long hours while quite ill. Maggie went on to say "The number of hours is constant. I'm so tired, and my team is completely worn out. Designers have families, and many of us are working eight to five, and after a little time with our families, we are getting back online from eight to midnight. I was online with my boss until 11:30 one evening, fixing a problem with a course, and was still expected to be on time for work at 8:00 the following morning."


All of this has led to some positive exposure and the realization of the value of instructional designers. Each person we interviewed had a story about greater visibility and acknowledgment of work. Ellie reported, "Being on the front lines has been good because I feel that a lot more faculty and people in general have become aware of the instructional design field and appreciate and value the expertise and support that [instructional designers] provide. Many faculty have said that the guidance, resources, and support they've received for online instruction will help them improve their face-to-face classrooms in the future."

COVID-19 has elevated the conversation about the need for instructional design across higher education. Jacque shared that the response of instructional designers during COVID-19 "has legitimized the value of instructional design and the importance of strategy in course design and delivery. Before, I think people thought, 'Oh, I can just throw a couple of things up here and we're good to go. And that's it.' I think this has really helped people to understand the value of instructional design, why it's important to plan your course, to decide how much time is going to be used to do instructor-to-student, student-to-student, or student-to-content activities, why it's important to figure out how much time it takes students to do a reading, and so on."

No End in Sight

We have heard announcements regularly of colleges and universities switching from residential to online learning or from hybrid to fully online learning in response to outbreaks of COVID-19 on campus. Many of these institutions are once again faced with the need to rapidly transition to a fully online program. Others have already committed to a full year online. Jacque shared that "in the beginning of the transition to online, we had fewer faculty who were interested in our support, but as time went on, more and more faculty recognized that they needed help. The burnout experience in my view is due to the growth in demand for our services, which increased at least threefold between spring break and the end of the summer."

Considering that the future of teaching and learning may look very different in higher education, we asked our interviewees to share some advice for how we move forward. Here's what they said:

  • Be your own advocate. Whether it's work–life balance, needing a day away from the computer, or the hours you are working, be clear regarding your needs.
  • Learn to communicate value statements about the work of instructional design and how much time it actually takes to get the work done.
  • Communicate the value of online learning to leadership on your campus and how online learning can be effective. 
  • Ensure more support and resources for faculty development in the use of technology to enhance their teaching practices.
  • Gather feedback and input from students regarding the design of their learning experiences, and incorporate their ideas into continuous improvement plans.
  • Understand that instructional designers can be perfectionists. Perfection is the enemy of progress. Learn how to be okay with something that isn't perfect.

If we want to solve the issue of burnout and compassion fatigue, we must create an environment in which instructional designers can thrive, and to do this, we need to develop a long-term, solution-focused strategy. Jacque summed up by saying that "it's not simply instructional design or training on tools [that's needed]; it's the fundamentals of instructional design and learning theory. Most faculty simply haven't taken courses on how to design instruction and don't understand the affordances and limitations of the technology tools they wish to use in teaching." She went on further: "I feel like we are able to focus a lot on the design concepts and why those are important, but I still really don't feel like people understand the theory unless they were already in that realm before. I think there are a lot of people who are new to thinking about their courses and how to design them. And, I truly don't think that they know about the theories behind the value of thoughtful course development."


  1. Patrice Torcivia Prusko, "The Emerging Story of Burnout in Educational Design," EdSurge, January 27, 2020.
  2. Ashley Previte, "We See You: Recognizing the Emotional Labor of Educators," Resilient Educator.
  3. Rebecca A. Clay, "Are You Experiencing Compassion Fatigue?" American Psychological Association, June 11, 2020.
  4. Lee Skallerup Bessette, "Affective Labor and COVID-19: The Second Wave," EDUCAUSE Review, May 19, 2020.
  5. Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg, "Madam C.E.O., Get Me a Coffee," New York Times, February 6, 2015.

Patrice Torcivia Prusko is Associate Director, Learning Design, at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Whitney Kilgore is Cofounder and Chief Academic Officer at iDesign.

© 2020 Patrice Torcivia Prusko and Whitney Kilgore. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.