Are Empathy and Compassion the Antidotes to Burnout?

How to bring more humanity and compassion into your workplace.

by Colin Cafferty, January 11, 2024
Are Empathy and Compassion the Antidotes to Burnout

You’ve got an important presentation later in the morning and the technology is acting up again. You’ve just finished an appraisal with a star employee who is underperforming causing your team to miss a key deadline with a client. Then your phone rings. It’s your child’s teacher asking you to collect your daughter as she’s injured herself on the playground.  It’s at times like these that we could do with some time away from it all. But often we can’t just walk away from our responsibilities. So what do we do? Often, we put our head down and just push through it. We leave all those messy emotions for another day. That’s how we cope until one day, it no longer works for us. 

Workplace culture is key to supporting employee well-being. Simply offsetting stress at work with subsidised fitness memberships or free health snacks is not enough when the company culture tacitly promotes long working hours or denies flexible working practices. An article in the Harvard Business Review on What Wellness Programs don’t do for Workers argues that while there is no one solution to this problem, we need to “make work a place of humanity and compassion where individuals can bring and accept their full selves, mental health challenges and all”. 

This led me to ask myself –

What could that look like? 

And what would need to change to make it happen?

First of all, we need to know what compassion is. Emotion researchers define compassion as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering. The struggle at work may show up in many different forms – sometimes not so visible. Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. Adam Grant described it in a New York Times article as “the void between depression and flourishing – the absence of well-being”. When we have a difficult day at work, it may or not may not have to do with our job but either way, we are struggling in that moment. We may feel irritable or unfocussed or reactive and this impacts not only the quality of our work but our relationships. This is a moment ripe for a co-worker or leader to show compassion – to offer support before the situation morphs into something much greater than general discontent. 

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when we feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. Apart from the exhaustion, we feel cynical and detached with a declining sense of personal accomplishment. Compassion can be an antidote to burnout in the workplace – the antivenom to toxic work practices or coping behaviours.

Compassion can be the antidote to stress and burnout at work

Here are some of the active ingredients to that antidote formulation that can bring more humanity and compassion into the workplace.

  • Listen with empathy – Often we can best help by just listening with an open, curious, and non-judgmental attitude. And when we listen, it shouldn’t be to fix but to allow the other person to process whatever struggle is on their mind. We listen for their needs, and we reflect back what we heard to check our understanding and show that we really heard them. Above all, we show that we care by being fully present for them.
  • Learn the language of compassion – Emotional literacy is a key skill of emotional intelligence that gives us the vocabulary to express how we feel. When we name it, we tame it. Even when we are the ones giving rather than receiving compassion, it can help to empathically guess how the other person is feeling to help them put words to an experience or sensation they cannot name. “Are you feeling …?” Then we allow the other person to confirm or correct, and then reflect back to them to show we heard.
  • Ask the right questions – When an employee or colleague is struggling, we need to ask how we can support them. Asking the right question makes all the difference. Rather than saying “do you need help?”,  we should ask “what can I do to make your day that bit easier?” or “what is it that you need?” and then to really listen. Show that you really mean to help in some actionable way but leave it open to the other person to decide based on their needs. 
  • Give your undivided attention – A Johns Hopkins study found that giving just 40 seconds of compassion can lower another person’s anxiety in a measurable way. That said, it’s unlikely that you are going to make a lasting difference unless you show that you are really there for another person. That means carving out enough time to have a proper conversation in an appropriate environment – if it’s a sensitive matter, then best behind closed doors than in a hallway or open-plan office.
  • Look for the common humanity – When we remember that pain is part of the human experience, every moment of struggle is transformed into a moment of connection with others. We have evolved to pay more care and attention to those in our tribe. This means that we are less likely to show compassion towards those who work on another team or who are not direct reports. However, with this awareness, we can choose to act in a different way. We are all on the same team at the end of the day.
  • Model best practice. When leaders show vulnerability and cultivate compassion at work, they give permission for employees to follow. It says, “this is an acceptable, and even desirable, way of behaving in our organisation”. A leader embodies the culture of an organisation and is a source of inspiration for others. When they open up about their own personal challenges, they create a safe space for others to follow.
  • Celebrate acts of kindness and compassion – Let people know when an employee goes above and beyond to help someone else who is struggling. Research shows that we imitate others’ prosocial behaviours. Emotions are contagious and compassion or empathy is no different. Another study found that compassion at work is associated with more frequent positive emotion and commitment to the organisation they work for. When we feel inspired by small acts of kindness, then we are more motivated to behave in the same way.
  • Show compassion to yourself – Self-compassion is a practice in which we learn to treat ourselves the way we would treat a friend who is having a hard time. With self-compassion, we can be there for ourselves when others are unwilling or unable to. This does not absolve the employer of their duty to create a safe space and a humane and compassionate work environment. On the contrary, the organisation should be supportive of educating employees on the skills of self-compassion as part of a wider awareness programme on well-being and mental health in the workplace.

Organisations earn employee loyalty and increase retention not through pay and bonuses but by nurturing human connection and compassion. Numerous studies show that when leaders are primarily focused on the well-being of their employees, this is a strong predictor of employee job satisfaction, perceived organizational support, loyalty and trust in the organization, and retention. It also has been linked with improved employee job performance (by boosting employee motivation), and better team performance. 

But it can’t just be about meeting KPIs and making the hard business case. Authenticity is key.  Employees need to want to help others out of genuine care and concern. Authentic leaders can lead the way by displaying altruistic behaviour that inspires staff and makes work more meaningful for everybody.

In recent years, there have been calls for an empathy revolution in the business world. Empathy’s close cousin, compassion, is only beginning to get more attention in reaction to the immense suffering and turbulence that the pandemic brought with it. A McKinsey report in 2021 addressing how to turn attrition into attraction in the workplace warned that “if you don’t have leaders who motivate and inspire their teams and lead with compassion, you need them desperately”. They go on to say that in order to attract, develop and retain talent to create a thriving organisation, “requires leaders to develop a much deeper empathy for what employees are going through and to pair that empathy with the compassion – and determination – to act and change”.

Our care and concern for others is what makes us human, and this has allowed us to form social bonds and cooperate in times of struggle throughout evolution. By cultivating compassion and allowing our humanity to shine, we can transform our work into a place where we feel supported, where we can be our true selves and where we can create a work culture that allows us to thrive in the face of life’s challenges.

This article originally appeared here

About the Author 

Colin is Certified Coach based in Berlin, Germany. He helps others to find the clarity and courage to change to a career in the service of People and Planet. He also coaches those already active in the social and environmental sector to build resilience, overcome stress and achieve positive impact on their quest to make the world a better place. Learn more here