There is increasing recognition of a link between empathy and burnout.

I became interested in this after listening to Dr Dan Siegel, a renowned psychiatrist, talking on the difference between empathy and compassion and the concept of empathic burnout. Perhaps rather naively, I had never really sat down and though about the distinction between the two terms and how that might be relevant to my clinical practice.

An article in the British Journal of General practice “Burnout and empathy in primary care: three hypotheses” explores whether burnout is an empathy killer, whether empathy causes burnout, or whether empathy prevents burnout. They define clinical empathy as:

“primarily a cognitive quality that involves an understanding of the inner experiences and perspectives of the patient as a separate individual, combined with a capability to communicate this understanding to the patient.”

And that:

“clinical empathy must involve the ability to distinguish the self from the other in order not to be misplaced in the patient’s pain and emotions. This will guard against longer-term exhaustion and depersonalisation, and help to prevent burnout.”

Tania Singer, an expert on social neuroscience, is cited in an article “Compassion over empathy could help prevent emotional burnout“, which explores her ideas on the important difference between empathy and compassion. She states that:

people with a lot of empathy want to change that to compassion so they don’t get overwhelmed when confronted with suffering.” 

and feels that training in compassion could be particularly useful for

healthcare professionals and people under a lot of stress in order to prevent burnout.

Dr Daniel Siegel describes “empathy as the gateway to compassion” in his interview on the Dr paradox podcast.  Following on from Tania Singers work, he also stresses the importance of the difference between empathy and compassion.

When you train a person to be empathic they are vulnerable to getting burnt out. The whole brain gets over activated and shuts down.  Whereas someone trained in compassion, actually doesn’t shut down. And they increase positive internal states.

He also emphasises that moving from empathy to compassion can be taught and offers training in this, amongst many other skills, through his programme Mindsight.

He is coming to London on 21 October 2016 to give a talk on “The Human Mind – New Insights from Neuroscience”.

I am interested to know what other people think. Whether you are / were aware of the difference between the two?  And are you aware of any training that exists in the UK or in medical schools that looks at this?

I will be exploring empathy and compassion further in further blogs. If you are interested in this and keen to write a guest blog, please do contact me at kate@physicianburnout.co.uk.

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