There are interventions available to help you mitigate the risks of compassion fatigue.
(Originally published in HBR. Photo: HBR Staff)
As a manager, do you ever find that your empathy ebbs and flows? Some moments you’re able to support your team through emotionally trying times, while in others, you’re just going through the motions, secretly numb to the obstacles they face.
If this is true for you, don’t feel ashamed. Your feelings (or lack thereof) are valid. Helping others in pain is a prosocial response, but it can be taxing and, over time, result in compassion fatigue.
Sometimes mistaken for burnout, compassion fatigue is used to describe the physical, emotional, and psychological impacts of helping others. Most often experienced by professionals tasked with supporting people through stress and trauma, like doctors or therapists, the condition is marked by exhaustion, negative emotions, and loss of empathy. In the medical field, psychologist Heidi Allespach says that “caregivers can become so over-empathic that they find themselves growing numb to their patients’ suffering.”
For the last two years, we are seeing more of this in the workplace as well. Leaders and managers have been asked to double down on empathy in support of team members recovering from grief, loss, and lapses in mental health. They have been asked to be more sensitive, to shoulder new emotional burdens while navigating exceptional levels of uncertainty, and doing more with less. While this has been the order of the day, and most leaders have answered the call, it has come at a cost.
The pandemic has been receding in certain parts of the world, but the emotional demands of leaders is still large. Employees expect compassionate managers and sustainable, mentally healthy workplaces — and are ready to quit when these expectations aren’t fulfilled.
Whether you are a first-time manager or a seasoned leader, to meet these standards and to safeguard your own well-being, you must take measures to protect yourself from compassion fatigue. Here are some strategies that can help.
Make self-care routine.
As the adage goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. If you neglect filling your proverbial cup through proper self-care, you compromise your ability to manage your reactions, be present for your team, and listen and empathize with others. Self-care boosts resilience, and when you’re leading a team through this uncertain and stressful world, it’s mission critical.
At a macro level, self-care is about getting ample sleep, eating well, spending time with the people you care about, doing the things you love, and taking the occasional vacation. For example, if you know you could benefit from a bit more sleep, what’s one small action you could take immediately? Might it be turning off the light 15 minutes earlier or moving your phone from your nightstand into a different room, so that you’re not tempted to check it?
On a micro level, there are little ways you can care for yourself even on the busiest of days. For example, one of my clients blocks time for a quick walk outside at lunch. Another starts his meetings at 10 minutes past the hour to ensure he gets a break between them. These short diversions can give you a significant boost.
Analogous to putting deposits in a bank account, self-care builds your resilience and threshold for managing stress. These deposits ensure you don’t go bankrupt when the going is rough.
Self-compassion is simply treating yourself as a friend when you hit a setback or challenge. It’s a simple skill, but remarkably difficult for most of us.
Many people mistakenly shun self-compassion, worried they’ll become complacent and undermine their success. However, research demonstrates this is not the case. Self-compassion makes you a better leader, hard stop. It also better equips you to handle the increased emotional demands of leading in times like the ones we’re in today.
Research shows that people who practice self-compassion have higher resilience and emotional intelligence levels and stay calmer under pressure. Self-compassion is also consistently associated with emotional well-being and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.
Finally, self-compassion and compassion for others are linked. When you practice being kinder to yourself first, you boost your ability to treat others compassionately.
To unlock the benefits of self-compassion, pioneering researcher Kristin Neff suggests it must include three components. Try moving sequentially through these phases:
Mindfulness. Tune into what you’re feeling in the present. In difficult moments, pause and think about what emotions are showing up for you. Then label them. Studies show that putting your feelings into words quickly lessens their grip on you and reduces physiological distress. You might say to yourself, “I’m worried because I don’t know what to do,” or, “I feel sad because I’m too tired to give my employee support.” Emotional labeling will help you gain greater awareness and clarity.
Common humanity. Recognize that your struggle is shared by many. Say to yourself, “I know other leaders are dealing with these demands too.” Based on my work with numerous managers and teams, I can attest to the truth of this statement. There is palpable relief in the groups I run when leaders see that their peers have similar challenges; they’re not alone.
Self-kindness. Finally, respond to yourself kindly. Say, “Of course I’m exhausted. Look at everything that is asked of me,” or, “Of course this is hard; I was never trained for this.” Again, these statements are likely factual for you. Being self-compassionate is merely extending to yourself the same grace and kindness you would a friend.
You can practice this quickly and inconspicuously; with repetition, you’ll reap the benefits.
Protect your emotional state.
Hearing and witnessing others’ pain and difficulties can be hard, especially if you’re naturally empathic. While empathy helps you connect with others, it also makes you prone to absorbing the emotions and moods of those around you.
The contagiousness of emotions has been well established for years. However, a recent study showed that listening to others vent at work not only led to negative emotions in the leaders on the receiving end, but also increased the likelihood that they would mistreat others later in the day. Most importantly, the research showed that leaders could mitigate these adverse effects. How?
When others share their pain and problems with you, focus on actively seeking out additional information to better understand the situation. This response can shield you from some of the damaging effects because it leads to cognitive empathy, rather than emotional empathy. Cognitive empathy is understanding how a person feels and what they may be thinking. Emotional empathy is about feeling what others feel, and left unchecked, can lead to compassion fatigue and damage your health.
When colleagues share their pain and problems, professor and emotional labor expert Alicia Grandey advises leaders to see their role as an “information seeker” versus a “toxin handler.” Negative emotions can provide valuable information about how to lead effectively, so long as you protect yourself from the potential collateral damage.
Further, to safeguard against inadvertently mistreating someone later in the day, be sure to repair your emotional state after listening to your team members or colleagues. Short respite activities like taking a walk, engaging in mindfulness exercises, or other forms of micro self-care will help.
Do not dismiss the substantial emotional burden you shoulder as a leader today. The emotional demands of your role can be taxing and require you to take measures to protect yourself. By making a self-care routine, practicing self-compassion, and safeguarding your state of mind, you can successfully face the emotional demands of leading your team through the stress of today’s world.
With daily fires to fight and limited space to think, I understand how the pressures rob your clarity. As a certified executive coach, I help senior leaders and their teams gain fresh perspective, confidence and new capabilities that accelerate their success. Work with Dina