Make Resilience Your Best Defense Against Empathy Burnout

Discover insights on staying healthy and avoiding stress in the current workplace, including compassion fatigue, empathy burnout and the role of resilience.

In the post-Covid workplace, compassion fatigue is an intangible threat. Resilience is your best defense.


While the distress of front-line medical professionals in the battle against Covid-19 has been extensively documented, those who provide for the well-being of employees in corporate America have grabbed fewer headlines.


Now, as we make our incremental return to the workplace, HR directors are face to face with a creeping scope of responsibility that includes shouldering the hardships of over-taxed employees, meeting recruitment goals in a competitive climate, and thwarting the reduced productivity trends of the Great Resignation.


On top of all of that, you’re contending with the 49 percent of employees surveyed by global staffing firm Robert Half who are flexing their muscles, angling for benefits like subsidized commutes, relaxed dress codes, and childcare underwritten by employers, among others1.


Be Mindful of Stress

It’s no wonder that this power shift has left you feeling caught. But with prolonged exposure to these stressors, you can develop a syndrome known as compassion fatigue, which can cause mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, preoccupation, irritability, headaches, head colds, gastrointestinal discomfort, and an exacerbation of compulsive behaviors like over-spending or over-eating.


But when your sympathy for others intensifies to the point that you are no longer merely relating to their situation but also deeply identifying with it, then you have likely neglected your own well-being. Empathy, which Mental Health America defines as “the ability to not only understand another’s feelings but also to become one with that person’s distress"2.


Here are some steps you can take to avoid compassion fatigue symptoms:

  • Be kind to yourself. Accept your situation while resisting the urge to blame or berate yourself.
  • Understand your feelings and give them names—worry, anger, fear, resentment, uncertainty, among others. Learn to articulate the causes or sources of these emotions and brainstorm about how you might begin healing.
  • Give yourself a break (or two) at home, during the work day, over the weekend. Re-charging the battery is essential. Schedule an afternoon walk around the corporate campus or make a date for lunch outside the office.
  • Find a confidante who is not only sympathetic to your predicament but also capable of listening to your troubles and validating your feelings.
  • Keep the lines of communication open with your supervisors, colleagues, and direct reports. Be articulate and tactful in discussing the pressures you are feeling when making new hires, supporting employees uncertain about job stability, mastering new technology, and vetting providers.
  • Avoid taking on the woes of other employees as though they are your own. Try not to become personally invested in another’s problems and remember that even if you experience them vicariously, you are not the cause of them, nor the solution. This mindset can free you to provide advice and support in more than one situation at a time.
  • Set boundaries that govern the tasks you will or will not perform. This strategy establishes clear expectations for the employee who requires support. Reserving time on a specific day or hour of the week to listen and problem-solve with employees—or limiting time on the phone or email—provides a buffer that allows you to remain healthy and prepared.
  • Resist the impulse to rescue others. Remember that you are not the savior. Recognize that only the individual experiencing the problem can overcome it. You can guide them toward a solution through thoughtful conversations or by providing resources such as counselors and education, but assuming that you are the expert—or that you alone can find the answer—can set a dangerous precedent for dependency on the employee’s part and chronic burnout on yours.
  • Explore the dimensions of wellness—physical, intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, vocational/occupational, financial, and environmental and pick a new outlet for creativity, which can be a source of healing.


Resilience is Paramount

As the adage of the airplane oxygen mask says, you can help others only after you’ve helped yourself. Self-preservation hinges on an ability to think about care-giving as a skill that can be switched on and off rather than as a feeling that is all-consuming and unrelenting. Caring for the self, like the care-taking of others, is a skill that can be developed with practice.


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