by Adam Waytz
Though empathy is essential to leading and managing others—without it, you’ll make disastrous decisions— failing to recognize its limits can impair individual and organizational performance.
Like heavy-duty cognitive tasks, such as keeping multiple pieces of information in mind at once or avoiding distractions in a busy environment, empathy depletes our mental resources. So jobs that require constant empathy can lead to “compassion fatigue,” an acute inability to empathize that’s driven by stress, and burnout, a more gradual and chronic version of this phenomenon.
Health and human services professionals (doctors, nurses, social workers, corrections offi cers) are especially at risk, because empathy is central to their dayto- day jobs. In a study of hospice nurses, for example, the key predictors for compassion fatigue were psychological: anxiety, feelings of trauma, life demands, and what the researchers call excessive empathy, meaning the tendency to sacrifi ce one’s own needs for others’ (rather than simply “feeling” for people). Variables such as long hours and heavy caseloads also had an impact, but less than expected. And in a survey of Korean nurses, self-reported compassion fatigue strongly predicted their intentions to leave their jobs in the near future. Other studies of nurses show additional consequences of compassion fatigue, such as absenteeism and increased errors in administering medication.
People who work for charities and other nonprofi ts (think animal shelters) are similarly at risk. Voluntary turnover is exceedingly high, in part because of the empathically demanding nature of the work; low pay exacerbates the element of self-sacrifi ce. What’s more, society’s strict views of how nonprofi ts should operate mean they face a backlash when they act like businesses (for instance, investing in “overhead” to keep the organization running smoothly). They’re expected to thrive through selfl ess outpourings of compassion from workers.
The demand for empathy is relentless in other sectors as well. Day after day, managers must motivate knowledge workers by understanding their experiences and perspectives and helping them fi nd personal meaning in their work. Customer service professionals must continually quell the concerns of distressed callers. Empathy is exhausting in any setting or role in which it’s a primary aspect of the job.
Adam Waytz is a psychologist and associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.