Empathy in the Caring Professions

Empathy in the Caring Professions

by Marguerite Ham

Balancing Empathy and Burnout

I recently read an interesting article in Quartz about the possibility that empathy could cause exhaustion and burnout. This can happen to anyone, but particularly to people in professions which involve caring for people in distress: the ill, the bereaved, the mentally ill, or people in a life crisis.

jane goodall and her thoughts on empathy

There are three different types of empathy. All of them are part of emotional intelligence:

  1. Cognitive empathy means you intellectually understand other peoples’ persepectives and what language would be most effective in communicating with them.
  2. Emotional empathy is feeling what the other person feels — which can, in some cases, be too much for us to bear.
  3. Empathic concern makes us want to help people in need.

We need to look out for “empathy distress,” which happens when we absorb too much of the negative emotions of others. This is widespread in today’s COVID-19 pandemic, even in non-caring professions. Imagine how easy it is for someone in a caring profession, like funeral service or medicine, to slip into this condition!

Self-care for empathy distress

You can help yourself avoid empathy distress with a good self-care regimen and exercising the self-management part of emotional intelligence. Pause periodically to notice your emotional state. If you are feeling the pain of others, make a conscious attempt to shift that feeling more towards empathic concern. In other words, focus on the other person’s needs, and remind yourself that their pain is not yours.

Create space for yourself in your home or spiritual life to get away from the misery of others. This will give your mind and heart time to decompress so you get your emotional balance back. You don’t want to eliminate your sense of empathy and shut down completely. Instead, find a balance that will let you care for another’s pain without feeling it along with them.

Leading staff in a caring profession

As leaders, it is important that we watch for signs of empathy distress among our staff and help them past it. There are many tools you can use, depending on if it is an individual having difficult or a large portion of the staff. You need to take action before this stress turns into burnout. Otherwise, you may begin losing people from the profession as well as from your organization.

oprah winfrey leadership quote

What kinds of things can you do to help staff?

  • Talk to them one-on-one, confidentially, to touch base so you can uncover empathy distress
  • Refer them to the article linked above and encourage them to practice self-help
  • If distress is widespread among the staff, consider an offsite activity that will let people blow off steam and socialize. Doing so, you give them space to get away from distress as a team.
  • Lastly, consider bringing in a counselor, coach, or therapist to teach a session about empathy distress, lead them in discussion, or teach them self-care exercises.

Leadership challenge: What else could you do to relieve empathy distress in your organization?