Empathy fatigue is a phrase coined by Mark Stebnicki, a professor in the Department of Addictions and Rehabilitation at East Carolina University. He explains that, “empathy fatigue results from a state of psychological, emotional, mental, physical, spiritual and occupational exhaustion that occurs as the counselors’ own wounds are continually revisited by their clients’ life stories of chronic illness, disability, trauma, grief and loss.”
Empathy fatigue is especially common in high-touch professions where empathy, care, concern, and emotional support are job duties. Although first recognized in the counseling field, empathy fatigue is gaining more recognition in corporate settings, especially in companies promoting a customer-centric and people-focused culture.
Losing our selves. Losing our soul.
Symptoms of Empathy fatigue are described in Lynne Shallcross’ article, “Who’s taking care of Superman.”
- Feelings of powerlessness or helplessness
- Loss of meaning, purpose and hope
- Lowered concentration
- Somatic complaints
- Low morale or motivation
How did we get here?
Empathy fatigue is caused by the relentless pursuit to serve the customer coupled with a distorted understanding of compassion.
On the way to perfecting our customer-first strategy we’ve forgotten that the customer is an agent in the equation. We have accepted that we are responsible for making everything better, so we listen more, care more, empathize more, and suffer more.; so that they will have a pleasant experience, stay engaged, and buy more.
Most people believe that compassion is synonymous with empathy, altruism and kindness. That’s wrong.
How do we get out?
The obvious answer is self-care. It’s a good step, but it’s not the full solution. The solution is to practice compassion in its fullest sense. Compassion means “to struggle with,” not “to struggle instead of.” Here’s how compassion can help you solve empathy fatigue.
Keep caring and giving
Don’t shut down your heart. People are hard-wired to care about each other. And, don’t forget to also protect your heart. Bleeding-hearts don’t last very long.
Engage others in the process
Stop solving problems for people. Get them involved to take ownership over the solution. Customers are much more loyal and engaged when they take an active role in the solution. When you are doing all the emotional (and physical) work, you are undermining their capability and dignity and creating dependence.
Set and enforce boundaries
Protect your soul by knowing your boundaries and investing in you. Without it, your tank will always be on empty. What keeps you healthy and balanced? Do it. What gives you joy? Do it. Recognize when saying “yes” means you are saying no to what keeps you healthy. You are worth as much as the person you are trying to help. When you are fatigued you aren’t helpful.
Solving empathy fatigue requires difficult conversations with yourself and with others. It’s not easy, and we have a solution.
Start your journey towards more energy and better relationships today with The Compassion Mindset course, offered regularly in a two-hour webinar format.