The Empathy Burnout Syndrome

This phenomenon appears a lot in health professionals, very exposed to people with problems.

Women crying together.

Empathy is a quality that is necessary in health professionals, especially psychologists, but it can become a double-edged sword.

This quality is defined as the ability of a person to “put themselves in the shoes” of another, to understand them better and give them the most appropriate advice for their situation. It is important for psychologists to have empathy; However, since it is a double-edged sword, over-applying it brings repercussions for the intervener. In this article we will talk about one of these consequences, called empathy burnout syndrome, as well as its effects.

What is empathy burnout?

In recent years, the use of the term burnout has increased to refer to the fact that a person is already “burned out” by so much work and stress. It is a physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. It means it’s time to take a break and relax. This syndrome applies to anyone who has a job or is a student, since they have a daily workload and are under stress.

Something similar happens in the health professions, especially with those professionals who are in constant contact with patients who are or have suffered highly stressful experiences. It is known as empathy burnout syndrome or compassion fatigue, a term proposed by psychologist Charles Figley within Psychotraumatology. It is a consequence of the emotional residue of dealing with people who have or are going through traumatic situations.


The symptoms of this syndrome are divided into 3 groups.

1. Re-experimentation

An unresolved traumatic experience may arise associated with the patient’s conflict. Rumination of thought about an event and flashbacks appear.

2. Avoidance and affective blunting

Stress can accumulate session after session if you do not have the required emotional intelligence or the situations of the patients with which you have to deal are very strong, this can cause emotional saturation, irritability, and frustration. Avoidance of certain places, situations or people that remind him of the traumatic event. It can lead to isolation or neglect of interpersonal relationships.

In the case of psychologists in charge of providing Psychological First Aid, it is due to the high exposure to risk factors during their work.

3. Hyperarousal or hyperarousal

Feeling of constant fatigue, anxiety, feelings of guilt or shame. Problems sleeping, difficulty concentrating, panic, and extreme excitement from small stimuli may also occur.

Recommendations to manage this emotional crisis

The syndrome can appear progressively or it can be sudden, like a bomb that only depends on the time running out to explode. Therefore, it is important to learn to recognize the signs and symptoms in order to know when to make the decision to take a break and implement self-care guidelines. It is extremely important, to give therapy or deal with patients, that the intervening have good mental health.

Some recommendations for the self-care of the intervening are:

As health professionals it is essential to recognize and accept that psychological support and a break from daily activities are also needed from time to time. The problem is that many times a “double agenda” is carried out, abnormal symptoms are easily identified in any patient but this is not the case when it comes to oneself. This is why self-awareness and the implementation of preventive self-care measures must be encouraged.

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