How Empathy Can Affect Stress Levels When Working in the Medical Field

Guest post by David Miller

Most people consider empathy to be a positive trait. People with a good sense of empathy have the ability to understand what other people are feeling and to sympathize with those feelings. It can also be a defining characteristic of healthcare providers but in some cases, a strong sense of empathy can be a mixed blessing for people who work in the medical profession.

How Empathy Affects Doctors

Most doctors agree that the ability to empathize with patients is a positive trait. However, they also recognize that certain working conditions means that empathy has to be balanced with pragmatism. In one recent study, [1] doctors noted that time pressure, adverse working condition and stress may diminish empathy.

The doctors concluded that they needed to balance their sympathy for their patients with dozens of other pressures. In a perfect world, there would be more time to deal with each patient and no emergencies to add additional stress to their days. In that sort of environment, they believed that they could give into their emotions more.

However, in the real world that clinical doctors work in, too much focus upon empathy can actually diminish their performance. Since it is unlikely that stress factors will evaporate in most doctor’s practices soon, the best medical providers need to switch gears from empathy and sympathy to logic and precision when the occasion demands it.

Nurse Empathy And Stress

Doctors are one issue, but nurses are perhaps at an even greater risk for letting their natural empathy overcome them. Nurses are most likely to choose this profession out of an ambition to help care for patients on both a physical and an emotional level. They are also usually the people who are on the front lines of medical care and so, they tend to have more contact with patients than doctors do.

Compassion Fatigue In Nurses

There is even a term that was coined to describe this common problem. It’s called “compassion fatigue.” This term was first coined in 1992 by a nurse named Carla Joinson to describe her own situation. She described it as burnout caused by a mix of emotional, physical, and spiritual depletion. Since the term was first used, healthcare providers who focus on emergency care and cancer care have stepped forward to admit this problem the most. However, it has also been noted in almost every type of nursing.

Not only does compassion fatigue reduce job satisfaction with nurses, but it can even impact the caregiver’s mental and physical health. One major concern is that compassion fatigue takes a toll in lower productivity. This kind of fatigue makes hospital turnover higher than it should be and alarmingly, it even increases the risk of medical errors.

Related: Compassion Fatigue & How to Overcome It

Caregivers Need More Care

Researchers have actually said that compassion fatigue is a sort of trauma. It is different than a trauma that comes from one particular incident and instead, builds up over time after many smaller incidents. Once it does surface, it can be just as damaging.

The obvious answer is that doctors, nurses, and caregivers all need more support to manage empathy. Again, an empathic caregiver is typically thought of as a good caregiver. However, sympathizing with patient’s distress has to get balanced against the medical provider’s own emotional needs.

In the future, there surely needs to be a greater focus on two things. Empathy management should be included in professional education and training programs. Secondly, benefits for doctors, nurses, and other caregivers should include access to therapy and support when they first begin to feel that their strong sense of empathy has started to impact their own mental and physical health.

David Miller is a successful business owner who owns and operates the site FindHigherEducationJobs.com, which is designed to connect people with the best job opportunities available.

Sources: [1] http://bmcmededuc.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1472-6920-14-122