Empathy and compassion are incredibly important and impactful skills to have. The ability to understand and share the feelings of another can be a powerful tool in building relationships and understanding the needs of someone else. While empathetic communication is important to understand, you may experience and empathy burnout if you try to demonstrate your compassion on a full-time basis.

The Elements of Empathy

Not quite sure what empathy is and if you’re experiencing empathy burnout? Empathy is the ability to be aware of and understand what others experience as if you were feeling it yourself. Empathy is a skill and something that can be developed and refined.

Goleman defines 5 key elements of empathy as follows:

1. Understanding others: Perhaps the most widely understood aspect of empathy, people who do this well listen well, pick up on nonverbal signals, show sensitivity to and understand others’ perspectives, and are able to help others based on these understandings.

2. Developing others: People who are skilled at helping to develop others’ full potential often act on the needs and concerns of others. These empathetic individuals reward and praise others for their strengths, provide constructive feedback, and mentoring and coaching.

3. Having a service mentality: Mainly addressing work situations, having a service mentality means understanding customer needs and finding ways to improve their satisfaction and loyalty. People who take this approach will always go above and beyond for others and seek to become a trusted advisor to their clients.

4. Leveraging diversity: This element relates to creating and developing opportunities in a group setting, recognizing that everyone can bring a different and unique perspective. People who employ this element of empathy see diversity as a strength and unique opportunity.

5. Political awareness: This aspect of empathy relates to sensing and responding to emotions in different types of relationships. Specifically, how to understand and interpret the underlying emotions of different people. This element of empathy can be especially helpful when navigating organizational relationships.

These 5 elements can help you understand the aspects of empathy you are strong in and those that you may want to further refine. While showing empathy to others is a very important skill, empathy can be exhausting and does have its limits.

Understanding Empathy Burnout

As discussed in the Harvard Business Review, empathy has its limits. Empathy can be exhausting and lead to something known as compassion fatigue: the inability to empathize with others that is driven by stress and burnout.

One reason compassion fatigue happens because empathy is a “zero-sum” game: there is only so much empathy to be given, and it essentially depletes itself. This means that the more empathy you devote to your clients, the less you have for your friends. Conversely, the more empathy you show to your friends, the less you can give your clients.

Compassion fatigue is particularly prominent in occupations where empathy is a primary aspect of the job: doctors, nurses, hospice caregivers, volunteers, non-profit workers, managers, customer service professionals, and more. Research from the Harvard Business Review article indicates that compassion fatigue is mainly caused by psychological factors often experienced in the health and human service industries: anxiety, trauma, life demands, and excessive empathy. Working long hours, having a large workload, motivating and understanding others, and supporting others needs and growth also contributes, but not as much as the psychological variables. Compassion fatigue can also have physical impacts on employees, including difficulty sleeping, headaches, and weight loss. These factors can have impacts on job performance including increased errors on the job, absenteeism, and ultimately empathy burnout.

Compassion fatigue can be minimized in the following ways:

  • Divide & conquer: Work with your team to spread work out amongst everyone. For example, certain team members can focus on customer issues while others focus on internal matters. With this approach, each team member has their empathy limits acknowledged, and they will not feel as overwhelmed or emotionally drained in the workplace.
  • Ask questions: To avoid compassion fatigue, be sure that each person on a team feels that their needs are being met. If interests are misaligned, asking questions to understand each person’s motivators and core needs can help everyone feel valued. A great exercise to practice with your team before you start your next project is to have each team member state his or her goals, motivators, and challenges for the upcoming project. This will help everyone understand each others’ position outside of the deliverable.
  • Take a break: If you work in an industry where empathy is a primary focus, encourage your colleagues to take time to focus on themselves and their personal needs. Suggest setting up meditation rooms, relaxation pods, or even personal time away from the office to your employer. It will not only showcase your dedication to the job, but also to the wellbeing of yourself and your colleagues.

According to Life Hacker, empathy is the most important skill for you to understand and develop. Being empathetic will help you become a better leader, follower, and friend. Life Hacker highlights that honing your empathy skills will allow you to:

  • Treat the people you care about the way they wish you would treat them
  • Better understand the needs and perceptions of those around you
  • Have difficulty dealing with interpersonal conflict
  • More accurately predict the actions and reactions of others
  • Motivate those around you
  • More easily deal with the negativity of others
  • And more!

Practice your empathy skills with those around you, but be sure to be aware of how emotionally draining this can be. To avoid empathy burnout, take time to focus on yourself and your needs. Check out this post on 3 Ways to Start Practicing Self Love.


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