Prevent Burnout by Making Compassion a Habit

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Annie McKee and Kandi Wiens for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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“I am sick to death of the ridiculous situations I have to deal with at work. The pettiness, the politics, the stupidity — it’s out of control. This kind of thing stresses me out to the max.”

Stress is a happiness killer. And life is just too short to be unhappy at work. But we hear this kind of thing all the time from leaders in industries as varied as financial services, education, pharmaceuticals, and health care. In our coaching and consulting, we’re seeing a spike in the number of leaders who used to love their jobs but now say things like, “I’m not sure it’s worth it anymore.” They’re burned out — emotionally exhausted and cynical, as a result of chronic and acute work stress.

Why is stress on the rise? A lot of it has to do with uncertainty in the world and constant changes in our organizations. Many people are overworking, putting in more hours than ever before. The lines between work and home have blurred or disappeared. Add to that persistent (sometimes even toxic) conflicts with bosses and coworkers that put us on guard and make us irritable. Under these circumstances, our performance and well-being suffer. Work feels like a burden. Burnout is just around the corner. And happiness at work is not even a remote possibility.

Here’s the good news: Some people don’t get burned out. They continue to thrive despite the difficult conditions in their workplace.

Why? The answer lies in part with empathy, an emotional intelligence competency packed with potent stress-taming powers. Empathy is “compassion in action.” When you engage empathy, you seek to understand people’s needs, desires, and point of view. You feel and express genuine concern for their well-being, and then you act on it.

One of our studies (Kandi’s research on executive-level health care leaders) confirms this. When asked how they deal with chronic and acute work stress, 91% of the study’s executives described how expressing empathy allows them to stop focusing on themselves and connect with others on a much deeper level. Other researchers agree (see here, here, and here for examples): Expressing empathy produces physiological effects that calm us in the moment and strengthen our long-term sustainability. It evokes responses in our body that arouse the (good) parasympathetic nervous system, and it reverses the effects of the stress response brought on by the (bad) sympathetic nervous system. So not only do others benefit from our empathy, but we benefit, too.

Based on our research, Annie’s work with leaders in global companies and Kandi’s with health care leaders, we offer a two-part strategy that can help unleash empathy and break the burnout cycle. First, you need to practice self-compassion. Then you will be ready to change some of your habitual ways of dealing with people so you — and they — can benefit from your empathy.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Annie McKee is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of the PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program. She is the author of the forthcoming How to Be Happy at Work, Primal Leadership (with Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis), as well as Resonant Leadership and Becoming a Resonant Leader.

Kandi Wiens is an executive coach and organizational change consultant. She holds a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from the University of Oregon. Her research focuses on building individual and organizational resiliency to change, emotional intelligence, and burnout.

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