five ways to use compassion to ease empathy fatigue

3/11/2022

"I get to the end of the day, and it feels like I've run a marathon. I'm absolutely shattered. And sometimes, all I've done is talk to people!"

Following two years of a global pandemic, layered with recent climate crises, political tension and war, many leaders and teams are currently experiencing a new level of fatigue and emotional exhaustion in workplaces. The prospect of more changes, such as returning to the office or introducing new hybrid working models, can feel like too much to process for many of us.

The good news for many is that these feelings of exhaustion, distraction, anxiety, and other signs of fatigue could be reduced, simply through shifting our focus towards a willingness to help and provide care for others.

Recent neuroscience research suggests that compassion and empathy are terms that are often used interchangeably, however they are actually quite different, and have significantly different impacts on our brain, energy levels and overall wellbeing.

When we move our focus from feeling how other people feel towards taking helpful action, we can activate a part of our brain that renews, rather than depletes, our energy reserves.

What is empathy?

Empathy is commonly known as 'people skills' and it is widely understood as a vital skill to effectively build relationships with others. It is about understanding and sharing the feelings of another person. This skill is helpful in lots of situations, particularly for leaders and managers navigating change and uncertainty with teams who are likely to respond in various and sometimes surprising ways. When we are genuinely able to be sensitive to others' feelings, we can provide more meaningful support and build stronger connection.

The lesser-known fact is that demonstrating empathy - essentially feeling what another person is feeling - can drain our own emotional reserves. These reserves are limited, and require renewal through our proactive wellbeing and self-care strategies, such as taking breaks, expressing gratitude, and eating and sleeping well.

It's quite likely our emotional 'tanks' will already be running low during this prolonged period of change and uncertainty, when self-care and wellbeing practices can easily slip. So, when we engage in feeling another person's pain, stress, or anxiety during a challenging time - it can deplete our reserves and lead to a phenomenon known as empathic distress fatigue.

Neuroscience suggests there are four types of empathy

Associate Professor Lisa Aziz-Zadeh of the University of Southern California (USC) is an expert in the connectivity between our brains and bodies and the neuroscience of empathy. She explains how empathy is an umbrella term that encompasses sympathy, empathy, and compassion.

Sympathy activates a more cognitive, rational process in our brains where we understand the opinion, feeling or suffering of the other person. It can also be described as 'perspective taking' where we 'put ourselves in another person's shoes'.

As we move towards empathy, we activate a more emotional response of engaging in that person's feelings. This is sometimes called 'mirroring' and it can be quite draining on our emotional resources if the other person is experiencing psychological distress. Equally, if we empathise with the positive emotions of another, we can feel energised. We often speak about the power of positive emotions and their broadening and building effect in four key areas - social, intellectual, physical and psychological (Fredrickson, 1998). Positive emotions create a positive ripple effect!

Compassion is taking this feeling further to action - doing something to support the person in distress. Offering to help also supports the development of trust and affiliation with others, which in turn creates a stronger sense of psychological safety (a key characteristic of high performing teams).

The Potential Project introduces a fourth term under the 'empathy umbrella' with an earlier stage of pity - the sense of feeling sorry for someone but having low willingness to understand them or act to help them.

The graph below (adapted from Harvard Business Review) shows how the willingness to understand the other person and the willingness to help increases as we move towards compassion.

• Pity - I feel sorry for you

• Sympathy - I feel for you

• Empathy - I feel with you

• Compassion - I am here to help

Compassion is rewarding, even when facing distress

German psychologists Dr Tania Singer and Dr Olga Klimecki's research shows that cultivating compassion can promote positive feelings like love and pro-social behaviour, while empathy can lead to increased risk of stress, burnout and withdrawal. They found that even when facing a person in distress, we activate reward systems in our brain when we show compassion while empathy towards distress can activate a threat response.

They explain: "Exposure to the distress and suffering of others can lead to two different emotional reactions. Empathic distress, on the one hand, results in negative feelings and is associated with withdrawal…On the other hand, compassionate responses are based on positive, other-oriented feelings and the activation of pro-social motivation and behaviour…Compassion training not only promotes prosocial behavior, but also augments positive affect and resilience, which in turn fosters better coping with stressful situations.”

Put simply, a reward response floods our brain and bodies with 'feel-good' chemicals like dopamine, while threat responses will release the stress hormone (cortisol) which is designed to put us on alert to keep us safe. Too much cortisol in our systems has been shown to have negative health impacts.

Compassion is a skill that can be learnt and applied regularly in the workplace to support relationships and productivity, even when you disagree with the other person or find it hard to relate to them.  

What is empathic distress fatigue?

Prolonged or chronic exposure to other peoples' stress can lead to empathic distress fatigue. Empathic distress fatigue is characterised by a number of emotional symptoms such as isolating yourself from others, feeling numb or disconnected, lack of energy, a sense of feeling overwhelmed, powerless or hopeless, and physical symptoms like tiredness, inability to focus, headaches and nausea.

If not managed carefully, empathic distress fatigue can negatively impact wellbeing and lead to depression. Anyone can experience this phenomenon, however doctors, nurses, therapists, social workers, first responders and journalists are most at-risk of empathic distress fatigue. When you are frequently engaging with people who are experiencing high stress and trauma (in a profession that aligns to people who already have strong empathy skills), showing compassion towards yourself and others becomes even more important.

Five ways to use compassion to reduce fatigue

It's clear that the key difference between empathy and compassion is a willingness to act. Here are five actions we can take to show more compassion, feel energised, and help reduce feelings of fatigue:

1. Be aware of your own emotions

Building your own emotional intelligence and paying attention to how different emotions show up in your mind and body can help you to move towards compassion. You may like to ask yourself: Am I in distress mode or discovery mode? When we're in a positive mindset, we are better able to look for opportunities to improve and help others.

2. Try to take a step back and not take things personally

An emotional outburst of an angry client, colleague or patient does not necessarily equate to a personal attack. It may be a result of the circumstances or other factors that you have no control over. Try to remain calm and show understanding towards how they are feeling. A helpful question might be: 'I wonder what happened to this person today to make them feel like this?'

3. When facing someone in distress, ask questions

Using a coaching approach, ask a range of questions that may help the other person arrive to a solution that will help you both contribute with compassion. Helpful questions might be:

• What would be a good outcome for you?

• What have you learned about yourself during this experience?

• What would be the most helpful thing I can do for you?

• Would it be helpful if I did <insert action here>?

• When should I check in with you next?

• How will I know if you're not OK?

4. Do random acts of kindness, especially for those who need it

The benefits of kindness are hard to refute at work and at home, promoting positive emotions for everyone involved. Kindness can be in the form of a compliment or smile, helping someone with a task when they didn't ask, or offering gifts. One simple and powerful act of compassion and kindness is to write a gratitude letter.

5. Practice self-care and self-compassion

We need build our own resilience and emotional reserves to be able to offer support to others. Make time for self-care, even if it's just a few moments to meditate, calling a friend to connect, reading a book, or exercising. You may like to try a mood-lifter or one of these ten tips. Or pick up a pack of Connection Cards and play a game with your family or your team and feel the energising benefits of shared positive emotions.

Seek help when it's needed

The Oranges Toolkit offers a range of science-based workplace wellbeing programs focusing on practical actions you can take to build resilience, energy, and emotional agility.

Remember there is help all around. If you or someone you know needs extra support, we recommend contacting your workplace Employee Assistance Program (EAP), a qualified health practitioner, or:

- Lifeline: 13 11 14

- Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636

- Visit Head to Health for a directory of mental health care providers and COVID-19 support

If you have any questions about our products and services, please contact us.

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New empathy fatigue webinar coming soon!

We are currently developing a new webinar topic to support many of our clients experiencing rising levels of fatigue. If you're interested in learning more about this topic and others, complete the form below to receive our webinar guide and we'll be in touch.

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