Leadership   //   February 14, 2022  ■  7 min read

Empathy fatigue continues to weigh on business leaders

When Daniel Cook lost one of his closest friends to coronavirus last March, he didn’t have the luxury of taking a lot of time off. After all, as a top executive of a busy law firm, he’s got a full plate — including the care of fellow employees suffering the effects of the protracted pandemic. 

In the age of Covid-19, “there have been multiple times when I have prioritized my employees’ needs over mine in order for them to power through their burnout and be able to complete their work,” said Cook, who heads business development, HR and team motivation at law firm Mullen and Mullen in Dallas. However, he admitted, “there are times when I am so drained I cannot think of how to support my employees.”

Two years into the pandemic, bosses like Cook continue to suffer the effects of empathy fatigue — defined by psychologists as exhaustion from taking on the problems of others — even as they must cope with their own losses. 

To put it another way, managers often expend so much energy on commiserating with their people in the pandemic that they have no compassion left for themselves. 

“What many people don’t realize is that our ability to relate to and care for others — aka, our empathy — is a limited resource,” said Cleveland Clinic psychologist Susan Albers. “If we drain our empathy account, we can end up feeling some pretty negative emotions.” 

That can spell disaster for managers who must, at the end of the day, be there for their employees.

“I experienced empathy fatigue during the lockdown period because, I guess, that was the first time I had to give out a large dose of empathy. I was pouring empathy into other people’s cups, but no one was pouring into mine.”
Marijke van Breda, head of marketing and PR for clothing line Oliver Wicks.

“It was a gradual process for me, but I eventually noticed that I had much less compassion for people than I used to,” said Brian Snedvig, who runs the resume-building website Jofibo. “Employee requests or issues that I would have normally been able to empathize with, such as a sick child, no longer seemed to get my attention. I wasn’t completely heartless — I was still able to be sensitive to the needs of others and could sometimes even empathize with their feelings or situations — but mostly it did not touch me the way it used to.”

Having reached a breaking point, many leaders are finding solutions for how to exercise a little self-care, both in and out of the workplace. 

For example, after his friend died, Cook realized that employees — as well as himself — could benefit from gathering once a week to talk about their lives outside work, swapping stories and advice on how to get through these times. “In the end, nobody has to go through hard times alone,” he said. “It’s important to share.” 

For Marijke van Breda, head of marketing and PR for the men’s clothing line Oliver Wicks, the answer was a month-long vacation to recharge. “I was strained, mentally, emotionally and even physically,” she recalled. “I experienced empathy fatigue during the lockdown period because, I guess, that was the first time I had to give out a large dose of empathy. I was pouring empathy into other people’s cups but no one was pouring into mine.”

Lattice Hudson, a business coach based in Arizona, has also experienced empathy fatigue firsthand. “In trying to combat pandemic-induced depression and anxiety, society and workplaces tend to neglect business owners,” she said.

Hudson explained the stresses of operating a business during Covid — how to keep the company afloat, being responsible for the livelihoods of her people, as well as their emotional well-being. She knew at a certain point she had to establish some rules around how much she was willing to give of herself, which included working only during regular business hours and taking needed breaks through the workday. “Eventually, when being there for my staff led to my health deteriorating, I knew I had to set boundaries,” she said.

Albers from Cleveland Clinic recommends the “ABC model” for those coping with empathy fatigue:

  • Awareness. Acknowledging how one is feeling and showing oneself compassion are key. Sometimes the best thing we can do is to take a moment to actually feel our emotions and sit with them.
  • Balance. Do you have other interests besides your job and taking care of other people? Is there balance between worrying about others and your self-care routine? Returning to the basics and focusing on what we can control can be helpful.
  • Connection. In a world where social distancing is the norm, it can be challenging to feel connected — but doing so can be a solution for those experiencing empathy fatigue. Albers recommends reaching out and having conversations with people you care about, or considering connecting with a professional. 

3 Questions with Joe Du Bey, CEO of the software firm Eden Workplace

There’s opportunity even in the midst of a pandemic. How did Eden Workplace start transition in 2020?

Before Covid, we were a marketplace for local services. When Covid struck, that business was negatively impacted. We still had quite a bit of venture capital financing and a really talented product and engineering team. We figured, let’s pivot and make this Covid headwind into more of a tailwind. We started with a safety tool for employers who wanted to bring employees back before the vaccine. This was summer/fall 2020. It was a survey that asked questions like, “Where have you been over the last two weeks,” and “Have you come into contact with anyone who has Covid?” That tool was used so when someone did pass the survey, they could then have access to the office.

Where did you and the team take Eden next?

A lot of our clients are startups and they tend to have a lot of recent hires and mid-career folks, who were miserable in their tiny, urban one-bedroom or studio apartments. They’re very social creatures that might not have friends in the city they moved to for their job. They really needed to come into the office and also this was a very low risk group. So we built a desk booking solution. That way we could also do contact tracing if someone was Covid positive since we would know where the person sat and who came in that same day. And all these different products started to speak to each other so they were working together. When vaccines came out we started to hear people ask if we could find a way to track them, so the team of engineers and designers built a system that lets people upload their vaccination cards.

What is coming down the pipeline?

A lot of companies are asking how they can engage teams to make sure that they’re doing okay. Now that our imminent concern isn’t health, how do we make sure they’re feeling okay, that they want to work here and that they’re not going to be another victim of the great resignation. This year, we’re going to build tools that enable them to keep tabs on their welfare, the sentiment of their team and some other tools that help them better conduct HR people ops. — Tara Weiss.

By the numbers:

  • A whopping 89% of respondents blamed burnout for their decision to leave their jobs.
    [Source of data: research published in January 2022 by education technology company Cengage Group
  •  71% of business leaders and 59% of employees think working in a traditional 9-to-5 office setting is not realistic for them.
    [Source of data: 2022 Business in the Northwest report.]
  • Of 678 executives surveyed, 48% said talent acquisition and retention challenges are their biggest concerns. And 77% of those executives say hiring and retaining talent is their most critical growth driver this year. 
    [Source of data:  PwC’s recent Pulse Survey]

What else we’ve covered:

  • Nearly one-third of adults (32%) said they are sometimes so consumed by the pandemic that they struggle to make basic choices.
  • “We put a premium on having a good bedside manner”: Dave Goodside, owner of The Beach Cafe in Manhattan, shares how he and staff police customer vaccine passports, as part of WorkLife’s On the Job series, which features first-person accounts of how people are adapting to the changing realities of work and workplaces.
  • Beyond simply acknowledging and honoring the contributions and sacrifices of African Americans, Black History Month presents an opportunity for businesses to make a real measurable impact. Here are some of the interesting ways some employers and their staff are going about it.
  • One in three Americans have workplace romances. But in the wake of the Jeff Zucker saga, how soon should you set up a meeting with HR? Doing so after a first date seems absurd. But then again, so does blowing up your entire career over a fling with Justin from accounting.
  • Talent marketplaces are fast becoming a solution for companies struggling with both talent shortages and retaining employees who don’t want to work full-time. Unilever, Nestlé, Mastercard and HSBC are among those to have adopted the model.
  • Regardless, of their motives for leaving, staying afloat is a big challenge for the Great Resigners’ as they transition and find new ways to make a living.
  • The evolving impact of Covid-19 on the workplace and ongoing struggle to retain talent mean companies need quick feedback on timely topics. That’s where micro surveys are helping.
  • The pandemic may have tested the resolve of millions, but it also exposed many home truths about outdated working practices.