Empathy Equals Burnout?

This post relates to the first week of the Professional Ethics Course in Physiopedia. This week we are exploring empathy and professional practice.

As clinicians or clinicians in training I doubt we would be here if there wasn’t a part of us that was naturally empathetic. We all must be appreciative of peoples misfortune through illness and injury to have made the decision to help out in the first place. Clearly this level of altruism will vary in each of us.

I like this simple definition of empathy that Chantelle used:

Empathy: The process of appreciating and understanding a person’s subjective experience while maintaining some degree of professional or personal distance.

Do we need empathy?  Of course, if we can’t understand a person’s subjective experience how can we help them. The important aspect of empathy is maintaining a professional and personal distance whilst doing so that we can conserve our energy.  I have always thought that empathy is the cause of burnout in physiotherapists, a recognised phenomenon, which I often see in people after around 10 years of clinical practice.  Kristin discusses this phenomenon and many of you mention it in your posts, but are we wrong?  Surely if we maintain a professional distance, as defined in empathy, we shouldn’t burn out.  This blog post by Larry Benz discusses how empathy is not the cause of burnout, it’s something that I continue to ponder…

Larry’s post also discusses how empathy can be taught.  Having read all of your posts there is a general consensus that empathy is important but many believe that empathy can’t be taught.  Take a read of this post by Larry Benz it may affect your thinking…