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Empathy Affects Stress Levels Working in Healthcare

Empathy Affects Stress Levels Working in Healthcare

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. As we care for our patients, our level of stress tends to rise due to the fact that we care deeply about the outcome of their care.

As their care continually declines or fails to get any better, our levels of stress seem to rise because we desperately want their care to improve and it can feel like we're not doing enough to help them feel better. The level of stress that healthcare professionals experience is almost directly tied to the level of empathy they feel for their patients.

What is Empathy in Healthcare?

Empathy often gets confused with compassion or sympathy in healthcare. Empathy in healthcare means healthcare professionals who acknowledge the emotional state of their patients without experiencing the emotional states themselves. In other words, empathy is essentially understanding the emotions of others.

Empathy in healthcare means trying to put yourself into the shoes of someone else and understand the feelings that they might be experiencing. In the healthcare industry, this can be a difficult thing to do because it's not always positive emotions. Patients struggle with a variety of things on a daily basis, and they can often feel a wide range of emotions from one end of the spectrum to another. For those healthcare professionals that try to place themselves in the shoes of their patients and experience their emotions from an outside perspective, it can feel like a constant struggle going up and down.

While there are plenty of things to be incredibly excited or happy about in the healthcare industry, there are also going to be dark days where it seems that a patient's outlook isn't going to be incredibly positive. As a healthcare professional, it can be a struggle trying to find a happy medium in this topsy-turvy emotional environment. Over time, this leads to a buildup of stress which can then cause burnout, fatigue, and a host of other issues.

Why Empathy Is Important In Healthcare

Empathy is super important to have in the healthcare industry because it can lead to a deeper connection with patients. One of the biggest struggles for patients who are going through a difficult time is the sensation or the feeling that they are the only ones who are going through something. While it is almost never true, it's a feeling that can slowly creep up and plague their minds.

Over time this leads the patient to feel like they're alone in their struggles and create new barriers in their path to improving their overall well-being. In healthcare, empathy is a fantastic way of connecting deeper with your patients to help them understand that they're not alone in their struggles and that people genuinely care about getting them on the pathway to leading a healthy life.

Demonstrating empathy is a way to both recognize and validate some of the fears, pain, anxiety, or worry that a patient might be experiencing. By recognizing and validating some of the concerns or apprehension that a patient might be experiencing, a deeper connection can develop in the healthcare industry and lead to a better patient experience over time. One example of this is how it can feel like you're just a number in the system instead of feeling like an actual person. In the healthcare industry, when you can establish that deeper connection because you empathize with the patient and the difficulties they are experiencing, you remove that feeling that they are just a number, and that you truly care about whether or not they get better.

Patients seek the validation that they are going to receive the best care they possibly can for their illness or disease. When you express empathy in healthcare, you're helping eliminate those concerns that they might be experiencing and help them realize that they are going to receive the best care that you and your healthcare facility have to offer.

Empathy in healthcare is super important when trying to build a connection with a patient, but it also helps establish an understanding of their future care and the trust between the caregiver and patient. Trust is one of the most important things in the healthcare industry. Patients need to have trust with their immediate caregivers and Physicians, the facility, the insurance companies they use, and more.

Patient trust is critical to improving patient care outcomes. An example of this and the importance of trust is how a patient uses their medication. If a patient doesn't trust their immediate caregiver and they are told that they need to take a certain medication twice a day, then they are far less likely to follow those instructions. Over time, this leads to feeling stressed about why the patients aren't following the instructions that you're giving them as a healthcare professional. This stress eventually builds up to the feeling that you're not doing enough to help your patients get on the path to success and improve their well-being.

Another reason that empathy is important in healthcare is that it helps increase patient satisfaction levels. One of the most important things in the healthcare industry is patient satisfaction levels. A patient who isn't satisfied with their level of care or interaction with certain healthcare professionals is unlikely to come back or be open to receiving care from those healthcare professionals in the future. This ultimately impacts patient retention. Patient retention is critical to keeping a successful healthcare facility running, and ensure revenue will continue coming in the future when patients get sick or aren't feeling well.

Patient satisfaction also has another unintended result. If a patient is enjoying their care more, they tend to stick to their recommended treatment plans more often, and increase the likelihood that they will get better more quickly. For those healthcare professionals that are struggling to understand what they can do to improve the overall patient satisfaction levels, one way to think about it is through the patient experience.

What are things that can be done to help improve the overall patient experience and make the care process easier for them?

The key to answering this question is by using empathy to identify what the patient is experiencing and find ways that you can improve those feelings and emotions. By improving the overall patient experience and making it easier for them through the empathetic connection you have made with each individual patient.

All of this can stem from not building a deep enough empathetic connection or developing enough of a trusting relationship with your patients. When you express empathy for your patients, you help advance the deeper connections in healthcare and improve patient outcomes.

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, 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.

Unfortunately, doctors and physicians have to be careful about the level of empathy they establish with each of their patients. Becoming over-invested can cripple them when an emergency scenario arises, whereas not being invested enough can send off poor signals and really make beside manner a major concern.

Physicians on average see around 11 to 20 patients per day. In addition to any emergency scenario or other responsibility that a Physician might have, they are tasked with empathizing with each patient — which is a mighty struggle. 

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.

Compared to nurses, doctors often stop by for a couple minutes during a day and then move on to their next patient. Nurses will frequently stop by and interact with their patients nearly every hour and see them while their stay in a hospital or healthcare facility lasts. Over time, this means that Registered Nurses have a much greater chance of developing an empathetic connection to their patients.

Compared to physicians who might see up to 20 patients per day, a nurse typically sees one to six patients a day on average.

Over time, this limited patient interaction means that each nurse has a greater chance of connecting and developing an empathetic relationship based on what they're going through. Because nurses develop a much stronger connection, they have an increased chance of experiencing heightened levels of stress because they're getting worried about each patient and having to respond to their struggles and concerns as they arise.

The fortunate thing about nursing is that even though they are more exposed to stress because of the empathetic connections and exposure to patients they develop, the good news is that nurses are often in the same boat together. This means that not only do patients become empathetic about some of the feelings they feel for their patients, they are also incredibly supportive of one another to avoid allowing the buildup of stress to cause compassion fatigue.

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. Another modern phrase that is being used is also called "nursing fatigue". 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. An easy way to understand what compassion fatigue or nursing fatigue is, is that it amounts to general fatigue one can experience when they're getting ready to start their shift. It can create the sensation of feeling "burned out" when you're working.

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.

This means that empathy connections need to be managed in order to reduce the stress that can rise from these connections over time and ultimately reduce the potential turnover that can rise from this burnout.

Related: Compassion Fatigue & How to Overcome It

Caregivers Need More Care

Researchers have actually said that compassion fatigue is a sort of trauma that healthcare professionals are exposed to over time. 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. One important effort that needs to be made is to make sure that caregivers and the empathetic pressure they put on themselves with each patient receive more attention. If more attention is placed on each individual caregiver to ensure they aren't building up too much stress, then the risk of healthcare professionals succumbing to burnout and fatigue is much greater.

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 the 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.

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

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(Article / Content Updated 2019)