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How to avoid ‘compassion fatigue’ as pandemic stress drags on

Feeling impatient with coworkers or work situations these days? If you find yourself lacking empathy, there may be a reason—and some solutions.

How to avoid ‘compassion fatigue’ as pandemic stress drags on
[Source photo: Millo Lin/Unsplash]
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Think back to the early days of the pandemic, when many of us were still figuring out our Zoom features and feeling a little shell-shocked by what was happening around us. Seeing a coworker’s cat jump on the desk to investigate the laptop or hearing the raucous children in the background was funny and a bit endearing. Many of us were struggling to live and work under one roof. It was a time to give people some grace. Empathy and vulnerability were widely touted as management essentials.

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Now that many of us are closing in on 18 months of working from home—or mostly so—that largesse seems to be wearing a bit thin. Call it empathy backlash or compassion fatigue, if you notice those same once-adorable situations causing you to grind your teeth a bit you’re not alone.

The 2021 State of Workplace Empathy report from Businessolver found that 68% of CEOs say they fear they will be less respected if they show empathy in the workplace, which was up 31 points from the previous year’s report. And 70% of CEOs say it’s hard for them to consistently demonstrate empathy in their working life, a 29-point increase over the same time period. (And don’t expect much help from HR—half of those professionals agree, up 13% from the previous year.)

If you’ve noticed yourself being short with people or less patient with their challenges, you could be experiencing “compassion fatigue,” says Katharine Manning, an attorney with more than 25 years of experience working with trauma victims, as well as the author of The Empathetic Workplace: 5 Steps to a Compassionate, Calm, and Confident Response to Trauma on the Job. “The signs can be different for different people,” she says. But it happens, it’s time to double down on solutions.

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We know that empathy in the workplace is important. As we previously reported in Fast Company, empathy can help employees better express themselves and deal with stressors, which can lead to better productivity. Empathy in leadership also fosters trust. So, if you find yourself feeling less empathetic, here are a few ways to get back to that kinder way of being.

Stay curious

When you start to notice the signs of compassion fatigue or feeling like you’re all out of empathy, start to question why. “I used to be so patient with this person, but they’re pissing me off now. Why?” says organizational psychologist Laura Gallaher, founder of workplace consulting firm Gallaher Edge. “Genuine openness is self-awareness plus self-disclosure,” she adds. So, get to the bottom of why your attitude toward this co-worker or team member has changed. Are you struggling with your own challenges? Burned out? Or are there workplace or other issues that need to be addressed? By exploring your own feelings, you may get answers that lead to solutions, she says.

Identify the needs—and meet them

Once you have an idea why you’re getting impatient or feeling less empathy, you can start to look for solutions, says workplace consultant Katherine King, founder of cross-cultural training firm Invisible Culture. What needs are not being met? Let’s say you’re punctual by nature and meetings now routinely start late because others are less aware of starting on time or dealing with distractions that cause them to show up late, it can feel like your time is not respected or impede your ability to get things done. “The manager needs to make an effort to reorient the group back to a time structure that honors the people who have been flexible for the past year and a half,” King says.

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Be aware of perfectionism

Striving for your workplace interactions to be the same as they were before the pandemic, especially, with the additional challenges posed by remote or hybrid teams and different family situations, may lead to unrealistic expectations. “The more we try to be perfect, the less perfect we will most likely be in [others’] eyes,” King says. For instance, when a worker tries to be perfect for their boss or a leader for their team, there is a higher chance they will be judged as not perfect, she adds. So, be aware of your stressors are linked to a desire for everything to be perfect, and try to manage some of those expectations if they’re not realistic. And if you have a hard time doing that, show yourself some compassion, too.

Set boundaries

If you’ve identified behaviors that can be corrected to reduce the tension or impatience you’re feeling, find a way to communicate about them, Gallaher says. Empathy is not a one-way street, so if you’re in a workplace environment where the expectation is to try to understand others’ needs, being open about your own is one way to find a resolution.

Manning also recommends recognizing your own boundaries and ensuring that you’re not overextending yourself emotionally, which can be a big contributor to compassion fatigue. “If somebody that I work with is going through a really, really hard time in whatever it is that they’re going through, recognize I can’t fix it for them,” she says. You can be supportive, offer to listen, and even suggest tools or resources. But you can’t make a situation better for them.

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Take care

Your own burnout could also be contributing to feelings of anger, frustration, or impatience, Manning says. Be sure you’re properly taking care of yourself, including taking time to “reset” or alleviate stress. “I do five minutes of yoga, five minutes of meditation every morning,” she says. Taking time for whatever helps ground you—exercise, art, meditation, or prayer, to name a few—can help you stay stronger overall, she says. “So that things don’t start to wear you down.”

About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites

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