When we hear the terms ‘compassion fatigue’ or ‘empathy burnout’ in a work context, the conversation most likely revolves around the issue faced by so-called social- and health-care workers. Experts on the topic such as Dr. Frank Gabrin claim this “happens in no other segment of the industrial workforce.” Yet, research into the experience of social impact professionals shows they are not immune from this kind of burnout. The opposite is true.
- Burnout is the state of complete physical, emotional and mental exhaustion. Burnout involves depressive symptoms like low mood, cognitive alterations, sleep problems.
Changemakers are becoming the burnt-out generation
Every time I am in a room with other social impact professionals and ask them if they can think of a fellow changemaker who has suffered from burnout (themselves included), all but a few hands remain unraised. These are passionate and talented young people, mostly in their late teens, twenties, and early thirties, who are committed to co-creating a better world for all. They are becoming the burnt-out generation.
If burning out was not bad in and of itself for the individual, what makes it more problematic is that when changemakers burn out, they are unable to carry on with their meaningful work. Their contribution to the world is thwarted. If we scale this up to affect an entire generation of changemakers, how could we possibly expect them to find creative and innovative solutions to some of the world’s most pressing social and environmental challenges?
Let's step towards empathy and compassion
Elder Scilla Elworthy invites social impact professionals to rethink the relationship between inner and outer work: in fact, studies show that when changemakers focus on our wellbeing, they increase their chances to thrive and to become more effective in their outer work to create a better world. So I invite social impact professionals to step forward into empathy and compassion as a path to prevent burnout, heal from exhaustion, and thrive in life.
Empathy and compassion pave the way for deconstructing three interconnected causes to this alarming lack of wellbeing and increasing rates of burnout.
- They raise awareness of the ‘hero-preneurial’ mindset. Changemakers often fall into the trap of wanting to save the world. They become so devoted to their cause that they forget to look after themselves completely. This takes a toll on their wellbeing, ultimately preventing them from fulfilling their potential.
- They push for breaking the wellbeing taboo, whereby changemaking is depicted as a ‘cool’ and ‘rewarding’ career path to follow and changemakers are expected to be positive and happy people. This emphasis on always being on top of their game disregards the reality of burnout and mental health issues experienced by many. It is not always possible to ‘be well’ – it is okay not to be okay.
- They encourage organisations to rethink their lack of organisational commitment. Organisations that prioritise financial sustainability or business development over personal and organisational wellbeing, find that this approach backfires as employees become disengaged and disconnected, and decide to quit.
Importantly, any serious effort to address the causes above and to create a culture of wellbeing must act on multiple levels: individual, organisational, institutional, and ecological. This is because there is no separation from others and Nature, only interconnectedness. The implication is twofold: one the one hand, social impact professionals cannot focus on their individual wellbeing at the expense of other people’s or the environment’s wellbeing, for example. They must find a balance between all levels. On the other hand, when impact social professionals develop tools and resources to cultivate wellbeing in their everyday life, they are better equipped to lead more balanced lives and to cope with difficult situations. People who lead a happy and healthy life are more likely to have the cognitive, emotional, physical, and spiritual space and ability to engage in work that creates a positive impact for people and planet.
In fact, neuroscience shows that doing good feels good (Vanessa King). Various studies demonstrate that people who engage in meaningful work where they support others are happier than those who engage in merely selfish work. This creates a positive feedback loop, which, if practiced regularly, can rewire our brains (Rick Hanson) to become happier people and more effective changemakers.
There is no reason why social impact professionals should not be able to find nourishment and wellbeing in their journey towards creating a better future for all. The path towards healing from burnout and thriving in life begins with stepping towards empathy and compassion.
About the Author
Greta Rossi is the co-founder of Recipes for Wellbeing, an initiative that aims to create and spread a culture for wellbeing for changemakers and their organisations. Recipes for Wellbeing hosts an online platform where changemakers can access a diverse collection of recipes to cultivate wellbeing in their everyday work and life. They also host personalised wellbeing retreats for changemakers and their organisations.