Well-Being//

The Role Of Empathy and Compassion In Preventing Burnout

Connecting with others can produce a ripple effect.


How connecting with others can produce a ripple effect.


Almost 50 percent of human resource managers said about half of employee turnover was due to burnout, according to a study by The Workforce Institute and Future Workplace. Difficult workplace conditions, the pressure to perform (from both yourself and your employer), the demands of personal life, and more can take a toll.

Yet, under the same conditions not everyone experiences burnout. Why? One key may be emotional intelligence, and in particular, empathy and compassion practiced in a balanced way. Cultivating these traits helps you focus on yourself less and connect more deeply with others.

Defining Empathy and Compassion

You might think you could find standard definitions of empathy and compassion, but that’s not the case. One definition is empathy refers to the ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, while compassion includes the desire to help.

A Harvard Business Review article uses an opposite definition, defining empathy as “compassion in action.” The article states, “When you engage empathy, you seek to understand people’s needs, desires, and point of view. You feel and express genuine concern for their well-being, and then you act on it.”

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, defines empathy as “sensing others’ feelings and perspectives, and taking an active interest in their concerns.” He also describes three types of empathy:

· Cognitive empathy is seeing the world through another person’s eyes.

· Emotional empathy means feeling what the other person feels.

· Empathic concern, also called compassionate empathy, means understanding and feeling a person’s situation and also feeling moved to help.

Regardless of the exact definitions, empathy and compassion are a way to actively try to understand others. “Compassion, as with other positive emotions, can counter the physiological effects of stress,” according to another Harvard Business Review article. “And, attuning to other people’s perspectives, attitudes, and beliefs contributes to our ability to gain trust and influence others. This, on a very practical level, often means we get the help we need before stress spirals into burnout.”

How To Cultivate Empathy And Compassion

Learning to practice empathy/compassion with other people starts with self-empathy/compassion. If you are unaware of your emotions or beating yourself up, you don’t have the capacity to deal empathically with others.

To practice self-empathy/compassion, look to understand yourself, your emotions, and your physical and intellectual experiences. Make more mindful decisions and incorporate self-care in your daily routine.

Practical suggestions include:

· Set healthy boundaries at work and avoid overwork.

· Set aside time for activities that renew and invigorate you, such as your favorite physical activities, spending more time with family and friends, meditation, journaling, etc.

· Let go of negative self-talk and forgive yourself.


When you have more capacity to extend empathy and compassion to others, two ways to cultivate these qualities are to practice mindfulness, which can increase your awareness of others, and to avoid placing blame, which disconnects you from the feelings of others.

For some practical steps in displaying empathy, Dr. Helen Riess, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, developed an acronym, EMPATHY:

· E: Eye contact — usually the first indication someone has noticed us.
· M: Muscles of facial expression — the look on a person’s face says a lot about their emotional state.
· P: Posture — it powerfully conveys connection.
· A: Affect (the scientific term for expressed emotions) — when you label someone’s emotion, it changes how you hear what the person is saying.
· T: Tone of voice — a powerful conveyor of emotion.
· H: Hearing the whole person — not only hearing words but also understanding the context of the other person’s life. Clarifying questions and statements are key to making others feel heard.
· Y: Your response to the other person.

Can You Have Too Much Empathy?

Some studies suggest components of empathy may prevent or reduce burnout. But other sources suggest compassion is better than empathy because compassion is more about action than taking on someone’s feelings. A recent study suggests the type of empathy matters: “Stepping into the perspective of the suffering person leads to a health-threatening physiological response, while reflecting on how the suffering person might feel leads to a health-promoting response.”

Often, empathy is associated with feeling the pain of others but you can also feel the positive emotions of others. In other words, you can tap into someone’s happiness and joy. One study linked this positive empathy to greater life satisfaction, peace of mind, and happiness. Another associated positive empathy with greater trust, support, and satisfaction in close relationships.

To some degree, this discussion falls back to the challenge with defining empathy and compassion. Like most things, you need to practice empathy in moderation, within limits that work for you.

Have you experienced a situation in which empathy and compassion may have prevented burnout? Feel free to share by leaving a comment below!

Feeling as if you are on the brink of burnout? Let me help make it easier for you to move forward. I created a free bonus mini-guide that will help you reflect in order to live with more joy and purpose.

Originally published at journal.thriveglobal.com

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