“Where’s the fire, what’s the hurry about? You better cool it off before you burn it out. You’ve got so much to do and only so many hours in a day.”

If you’re like me, then you are now relating to the lyrics of Billy Joel’s “Vienna” more than you ever did. In fact, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many working adults across the world have experienced prolonged working hours, constant protocol changes, and a shift to remote work—all of which can cultivate an overwhelming experience of burnout. Burnout consists of symptoms such as emotional exhaustion, depersonalized or detached responses to others, a decline in feelings of achievement at work, and a loss of satisfaction in one’s work.

While burnout is a problem for all working professionals, for helping professionals the disorganized, hectic, and traumatic working conditions during COVID-19 have fueled even higher levels of burnout. This is concern enough for the health and well-being of those experiencing it, yet, reducing burnout in helping professionals is also of importance for those whom they help. Research shows that students of teachers with higher levels of burnout report feeling less supported, become less motivated, and receive lower overall grades than students of teachers with lower levels of burnout. Similarly, healthcare providers experiencing burnout tend to deliver poorer quality care, which can impact medical errors, patient safety, and patients’ overall satisfaction with their provider. Thus, burnout appears to be a public health crisis in-and-of itself.

Are Empaths More Or Less Prone To Burnout?

What exactly is it that contributes to working professionals feeling burned out? Some have argued that sharing in the emotions of others, often referred to as a kind of empathy, can be stressful and effortful and therefore is a liability when it comes to burnout. Others have suggested that experiencing similar emotions towards a person one is helping should actually prevent burnout, as sharing in the emotions of another may be energizing and rewarding.

My colleagues and I set out to help disentangle this debate regarding the relationship between empathy and burnout across various groups of helping professionals.

We theorized that helpers who reported empathizing more with the negative emotions of others, such as distress, pain, and trauma, would report greater feelings of burnout but those who reported empathizing more with the positive emotions of others, such as joy and pride, would report less burnout.

We conducted online studies of 59 practicing clinicians, 76 medical students, and 77 teaching assistants. We measured these helping professionals’ empathy in three different ways. First, we asked about their tendency to share in other’s positive emotions, where they reported the extent to which they agreed with questions such as “It makes me happy to see others succeed.” Additionally, we asked about their tendency to share in others’ negative emotions using questions such as “Other people’s misfortunes often disturb me a great deal.” And, we queried them on how burned out they felt from working their specific helping job.

The Answer Is… It Depends

The more a helping professional reported sharing in the positive emotions of others, the less burnout they reported. These “positive empath” helpers reported feeling lower levels of emotional exhaustion and detached responses to those they cared for, and greater feeling of achievement and satisfaction from their work. In other words, the more a helping professional derives happiness, confidence, pride, or joy from the positive emotional experiences of those they are helping, the less likely they are to experience symptoms of burnout. Helpers’ tendencies to share in the negative emotions of others was actually unrelated to how much they experienced burnout. We believe this to be good news, as experiencing suffering with others, and wanting to alleviate it, is often a strong motivator for helping professionals to get into the field to begin with.

Can We Help Prevent Burnout In Helping Professions In The Future?

Interventions focused on increasing an individual’s tendency to share in the positive emotions of others could be effective in reducing burnout. At the very least, how much one tends to share in the positive emotions of others may be a “marker” or risk factor for individuals who are prone to, or safeguarded against, burnout.

Perhaps we could all use a little more “Vienna” in our life during pandemic times. As Billy Joel writes, an ability to slow down and take the time to experience life again, with a little more emphasis on sharing in the positive experiences of others, might do us all good.

For Further Reading

Andreychik, M. R. (2019). Feeling your joy helps me to bear feeling your pain: Examining associations between empathy for others’ positive versus negative emotions and burnout. Personality and Individual Differences, 137, 147–156. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2018.08.028

Ferri, P., Guerra, E., Marcheselli, L., Cunico, L., & Di Lorenzo, R. (2015). Empathy and burnout: An analytic cross-sectional study among nurses and nursing students. Acta Biomed for Health Professionals, 82(2), 104–115.

Awa, W. L., Plaumann, M., & Walter, U. (2010). Burnout prevention: A review of intervention programs. Patient Education and Counseling, 78(2), 184–190. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pec.2009.04.008

Morgan Stosic is a PhD candidate at the University of Maine. Her research interests include the expression and perception of nonverbal behavior, with a focus on how individuals use nonverbal information to make first impression judgments of others.