Article | 8 min read

You take the good, you take the bad—you can overcome empathy exhaustion

By Chelsea Larsson

Last updated December 22, 2016

Rodney Lewis has an enviable superpower. He can walk into a heated customer service situation and get what he needs, without making an enemy. Recently, Lewis was stuck in an airport, with lots of other frustrated folks who’d been marooned by Southwest Airlines. A long line of people filed up to the desk attendant to complain about the inconvenience. Lewis was among them, but when it was his turn, he took a different approach. In his friendliest voice, he said, “I know this is not your fault, and that you’ve been put through it today. But I’m very frustrated because I’ve been getting passed around. I’m not angry, but I’m not going to leave this counter until I get some help.”

By letting the agent know that he understood her tough position—being the scapegoat for a larger Southwest scheduling blunder—Lewis made a friend. “She actually bumped some people that hadn’t check in and got me and my wife on the next flight.” It wasn’t hard for him to empathize with the bedraggled agent because for over seven years Rodney has worked in the world of customer service himself.

People like Lewis, the Southwest agent, and every customer-facing person in our society—teacher, bus driver, nurse, social worker—are under an inhuman amount of pressure to care all the time. And—close your ears if you can’t handle the truth—sometimes they hit their caring limit.

Known as empathy exhaustion, or compassion fatigue, this temporary psychological state is a natural extension of empathizing for long periods of time. Think of empathy as a cognitive muscle, if you work it over and over again without stretching, it’s going to cramp. Hitting an empty empathy state is not a sign of laziness, Grinchiness, or being bad at one’s job. It’s actually a sign that you’ve been knocking empathy out of the park…and now you need a break. As Lewis showed, customers can do a world of good by being sensitive to this state, and empathizing a bit with the people we expect to empathize with us.

Customers can do a world of good by being sensitive to this state [empathy exhaustion], and empathizing a bit with the people we expect to empathize with us.

Empathy exhaustion: compassion is a limited resource

In a neurological capacity, Our brains are equipped with mirror motor neurons that actually simulate other people’s experiences as if they were our own. Beautifully described as a “fellow feeling” by philosopher Adam Smith, this marriage of one’s own experience and that of another plays an important part in our everyday life. It’s what makes us gasp when we see someone trip, or tense up during an exciting sports game. We feel like we’re part of the experience.

But sustaining empathy for long bouts of time is another matter and one that carries a psychological and emotional burden. This is especially true in traumatic situations. Between 42 and 70 percent of social workers experience high levels of ongoing personal and emotional distress as a result of their work. The relentlessness of this psychological distress can lead to something called “vicarious traumas” where the helper’s view of themselves and their world is irrevocably changed. People who hit this state express feeling cynical, exhausted, and ineffective in their work. In other words, they are burnt out.

Part of the reason for this (thanks to those nifty mirror neurons) is that by empathizing with the stressed out individuals, the helper adopts those behaviors. In the paper, The Positive (and Negative) Psychology of Empathy researchers show that empathizers routinely match the stress level of the other person. If they are happy, the empathizer feels happy. If they are stressed, the empathizer releases more cortisol in their own brains. Do this over and over again, and the cortisol doesn’t have time to dissipate before the next event.

So, if you’re the seventeenth person in line to yell at a customer service agent, chances are they aren’t feeling super empathetic by the time it’s your turn.

If you’re the seventeenth person in line to yell at a customer service agent, chances are they aren’t feeling super empathetic by the time it’s your turn.

You have the ability to change the conversation

As a customer, you can choose to believe that “the customer is always right,” or you can face reality. Real life serves up messy situations that extend beyond the control of a caring professional. And that is where empathy shines—on the part of customer service and the customer.

[Read also: When “no” is the right thing to say to a customer.]

Empathy is a unique tool for changing one’s perspective. Instead of dwelling in a frustrating perspective of “I’m the victim. You are the enemy,” we can elevate our experience to “We are both being affected by an undesirable situation. How can we work together to find a solution?” Bonus:

Also, it helps you get help faster. A study by the University of Iowa found that when people perceive empathy as being a taxing or exhausting effort, they check out and begin to treat the target of the empathy in a dehumanizing way. On the other hand, if they perceive empathizing with this person as rewarding, they are more likely to humanize the problem.

Empathy can actually help you calm down. A study on the effects of empathy found that when people take on a stressful task with the other person’s interests in mind, they show lower levels of cortisol than the people who completed the task for themselves.

Businesses can prevent empathy exhaustion

Hard data and personal anecdotes both show that empathy exhaustion is a widespread side-effect of compassion work. But, if the person in the caring role isn’t privy to that fact, they might think it’s their personal weakness instead.

Not a great morale boost.

To prevent customer care professionals from internalizing this feeling (and risking permanent burn out), businesses need to openly recognize the normalcy of empathy exhaustion. Step one is letting employees know that everyone hits a compassion wall one time or another. Step two is to build a culture that catches exhausted employees

At Zendesk, Lewis used a couple of techniques—including an agent satisfaction survey (ASAT)—to keep compassion levels from hitting empty. “Internally, we want to know how advocates feel about their assigned channels, their day-to-day tasks, and their experience interacting with other departments. We get that information from an anonymous ASAT survey. Getting the big picture helps us design for a balanced system that keeps both customers and advocates happy,” said Lewis. He also conducted regular one-on-ones with agents to discuss their challenges face-to-face.

In addition to their feedback, Lewis observed agents’ frustration levels while they work. “Sometimes I sit and listen in on their calls with customers. Not to the actual words they are saying, but to the tone of the conversation,” explains Lewis. “If I feel like they were frustrated when they ended the call, I’ll go talk to them about the situation, and reassure them that they don’t have to handle this frustration by themselves.” Ensuring agents that they aren’t to blame for their compassion fatigue is important because empathy exhaustion is more prevalent in people who are self-critical.

Younger, less experienced professionals are also more prone to empathy exhaustion. Lewis combated this by creating peer group discussions with new and experienced agents. Groups of six or seven agents share their baffling situations from the week. Not only do these information sharing sessions help onramp newer agents, the swapping of experiences and peer recognition helps teammates feel supported, not alone, in their daily empathy marathons.

Sharing with coworkers has buoyed Lily Conboy, a mental health associate at an intensive treatment foster care program in the Bay Area. “My team at work also has weekly meetings where we’re able to talk about things like empathy exhaustion and countertransference. It’s helpful to process with a group of people who see similar hardships with their clients or experience the same challenges with burn out.”

One of the simplest solutions both Lewis and Conboy employ is a self-care break. Lewis encouraged agents to go for a walk, switch support channels, or otherwise emotionally reset. Conboy takes time to listen to upbeat music to get her spirits high again. Empowering employees with the freedom to self-soothe is key to combatting the drain on empathy. Encouragement is especially important with employees who might be afraid that taking breaks might look like weakness or slacking off. “It is important for individuals and their employers to recognize and challenge the psychological obstacles that get in the way of self-care, such as the belief that focusing on personal needs is selfish or indulgent,” writes Dennis Portnoy, M.F.T in Burnout and Compassion Fatigue.

Empowering employees with the freedom to self-soothe is key to combatting the drain on empathy.

The tactics Conboy and Lewis use aren’t highly innovative or hard to adopt. And that is the genius behind them. Any business can empower their employees to share, take breaks, and ask for help. These measures will benefit the employees and they also extend to helping customers—happy employees lead to more satisfied customers.

We are all working together

If Lewis’ superpower shows us anything, it’s that more can be achieved by working together than apart. Empathy gives you the tools to understand one another’s needs and find a solution that benefits both parties.

[Read also: Dare to choose empathy.]

As leaders, business owners, and customers, let’s take a deep breath in those stressful situations and remember that the other person is only human. And they are trying to help. By gifting our empathy warriors with a little bit of empathy ourselves, we can help brighten someone’s day, and create a better experience for everyone.