Empathy Fatigue in Medicine – is Compassion the Cure

Posted by Dike Drummond MD

empathy fatigue compassion fatigue healthcare 150x150Empathy Fatigue – Is More Compassion the Cure?

Empathy fatigue (also called Compassion Fatigue) is an epidemic in healthcare. You give and give until your own personal tank of energy and empathy is empty …. then what happens?

Often it is behavior that is reactive, dismissive, demeaning to the very people we are called to serve and heal.

Here is an excerpt from an article from UC Berkely about a researcher who is proposing a radical new method of dealing with empathy fatigue … releasing our urge to shield ourselves from suffering and actually diving deeper into our ability to feel empathy and compassion.  In essence … don’t fight it … release into your feelings and let them flow.  Here is the original web page for the full article.

A nurse refuses to help an ailing alcoholic who is upset to find a hospital detox unit closed. A hospital clerk brushes off a deceased woman’s grieving family as they try to pay her bills and claim her belongings. A charge nurse keeps the mother of a gunshot victim from seeing her son, saying the emergency room is “too busy.”

These harsh, real-life scenarios helped inspire Eve Ekman, a doctoral student in social welfare at the University of California, Berkeley, to study empathy burnout in the workplace, a condition expected to skyrocket this year due to the stress caused by the nation’s financial crisis.

“Many professionals used to burn out and leave their jobs. Now they burn out and stay,” said Ekman, who has worked as a crisis counselor at San Francisco General Hospital for the last five years.

A research fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, Ekman is building a case that caregivers’ emotional exhaustion in the field of health and human services, and in other professions, is actually compounded by the distancing and dehumanizing behavior that they can employ to shield themselves from being overwhelmed.

”Chronic stress can lead to a sense of helplessness that can cause people to withdraw emotionally from their work in order to protect themselves,” Ekman said. “But dehumanization leads to a lack of work fulfillment that can prevent people from doing their jobs well.”

Ekman hypothesizes that clinical empathy, instead of emotional distancing, can help alleviate job burnout and energize caregivers to act with compassion. Instead of being discouraged at claims of growing ‘compassion fatigue,’ which refers to the emotional numbing that caregivers can experience, she has found herself heartened by how many continue to demonstrate compassion in their jobs despite the daily suffering they encounter.