Empathy fatigue.. and 3 tips to handle it

I recently had an opportunity to talk to a hospital administrator. I had met him in the context of understanding how they approached customer focus in their organization.

He explained his role and the challenges his team needs to handle on a daily basis and how his customer segments include both the patients on one side and the doctors along with other para medical staff as well.

Our discussion moved on to the role of empathy and how the staff are sensitized to these aspects.

After our conversation, we went for a quick tour of the facility.

As we crossed the emergency ward, I noticed that a new patient was being admitted and, quite naturally, an anxious group of family members were waiting.

The hospital staff went about their work very calmly.

My question to the administrator was – how do these people maintain a happy face and wear a smile, even when they are under a lot of pressure? Must have been your training on empathy.

His response was not what I had expected, and it triggered many thoughts of similarities in the software delivery context.

He said:

We actually have a problem of empathy fatigue. While the staff are selected based on their aptitude to help and then trained on techniques to de-stress in addition to the medical practices, over time, a certain numbness creeps in, where a new case is just another statistic and the emotional connect with the patient could reduce.

The team members observe each other constantly and not only provide the needed support and nudges, but also seek out help when they find a colleague getting exhausted.

In the context of software delivery, this is something that I have observed in 2 different types of situations.

For support teams – particularly ones that are supporting somewhat unstable code – the number of incidents leads to a certain numbness, that the severity of the impact may be under-assumed. It is just one more incident relating to …application/ location/ customer etc..

The second is when there are too many escalations – from outside the team. This could be external, such as from customers or internal, such as from sales or other teams.

Every escalation invariably requires significant bandwidth to just keep the chain of command updated.

Depending on the style of the managers, these updates could become very frequent and a certain amount of tiredness creeps into the team, that may just want to pause, reflect and resolve the issues – but are forced to create reports, attend phone calls or meetings to analyze damage control mechanisms etc.

When I interacted with team members in such situations, the dominant feeling is – I am doing my best, but still am unappreciated and not given some freedom , so I will do the minimum and resolve the issue – as I am proud of my professional competence and values – but there is no excitement anymore in having resolved an issue.

But, when fire fighting and escalation handling takes most of one’s workload, some empathy fatigue can set in.

Just like the repetitive Stress Injuries affect the muscles, ligaments, tendons and nerves, a constant barrage of escalations and crisis situations also tend to create fatigue, not only mentally – as that can have an impact on the physical wellbeing.

So, what can we do to handle this? I have found a 3-step technique effective in handling this:

  • Treat every day and situation as a fresh opportunity to make a difference
    • While historical knowledge is necessary and useful, let that not push you to jump to a conclusion and a pre-determined response of how the issue will be resolved or handled
    • An extension of this could also be stereotyping the application, module or the team that worked on it as unstable or unpredictable
    • Look for opportunities to learn from every situation, with a childlike curiosity
  • Pause and reflect, before jumping into action
    • When you treat every instance as new, spend some time in the analysis, review past resolution data [KEDB of sorts] and also consider the severity of the impact of this issue on the users
  • Identify a shoulder to lean on
    • Periodically, identify another shoulder – could be a peer, a senior or junior – who would be happy to lend an empathetic ear. This is a big de-stresser
    • Keeping this in mind, also consciously be a good listener for other teammates
  • A bonus, over the above 3: One can also consider a varying routine or job rotation
    • Exchanging or having a roster among the team members, so that one does not become numb to the work at hand
    • Make a game for yourself for every analysis and resolution

I will be eager to know what worked for you.. Let me know


picture credit: Photo by Filip Mishevski on Unsplash

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