Are Overly Compassionate Doctors at Risk of Burnout?

Medical professionals walk a fine emotional line. Doctors who are sensitive and empathetic to their clients’ situations tend to have high levels of rapport and communication with them. This improves the chances of treatment adherence and increases the likelihood of a positive doctor-client relationship. According to a recent study led by Ezedquiel Gleichgerrcht of the Institute of Cognitive Neurology in Buenos Aires, Argentina, doctors who demonstrate high levels of compassion and empathy may be at risk for compassion fatigue. Because doctors are exposed to a wide variety of highly emotional situations, including terminal illness, significant impairment, and death, becoming intricately emotionally involved with a client’s emotional state could negatively affect the mental well-being of the doctor. Ultimately, this type of compassion empathy could lead to burnout, also known as compassion fatigue.

Gleichgerrcht assessed how different forms of empathy affected overall well-being in physicians by looking at empathic concern, emotional awareness, personal distress, altruistic behavior, and emotional burnout in a sample of 7, 584 doctors. He found that the doctors who practiced empathic concern and kept their altruism in perspective were more likely to report compassion satisfaction as a result. In contrast, those who reported secondary posttraumatic stress and burnout as a result of empathy also reported high levels of compassion fatigue. When Gleichgerrcht looked at other risk factors, he found that women were more likely than men to report high levels of alexithymia and distress. Being unable to identify and express their emotions left these participants more vulnerable to feelings of devaluation and negative affect.

The results of this study show that possessing and practicing empathy is a challenging feat for many physicians. Those who have difficulty controlling their emotions and stress may inadvertently be negatively impacting their clients and themselves. But doctors who are able to regulate their emotions and keep their empathy in perspective appear to be able to provide immeasurable benefits to their clients and in the process protect themselves from potential burnout. Gleichgerrcht added, “These issues require further investigation, including the identification of biomarkers, as the medical profession is struggling to achieve an appropriate balance between clinical distance and empathic concern.”

Gleichgerrcht, E., Decety, J. (2013). Empathy in clinical practice: How individual dispositions, gender, and experience moderate empathic concern, burnout, and emotional distress in physicians. PLoS ONE 8(4): e61526. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0061526

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  • nancy

    May 3rd, 2013 at 10:46 PM

    If I were a doc I would definitely try to be empathetic to my patients but that does not mean I would take it to a level where it is harmful to me!Helping someone else and being concerned is very different from taking harm yourself.

  • DocC

    May 4th, 2013 at 4:48 AM

    I don’t necessarily think that this is true.
    I am caring and compassionate and love what I do and that gives me a good feeling to know that what I do is helping others.
    The doctors I see who are on the verge of burnout are those who went into the profession for the wrong reasons to begin with. It is all about the money for them and always will be and they are trying to burn the candles at both ends to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible. The acrifice everything- their familes etc- for the pursuit of something that in the end will not gratify you.

  • Lilian

    May 4th, 2013 at 12:18 PM

    In general, someone is going to either be compassionate ot not. This is their nature. I don’t think that this depends on the kind of work that you do. Now there may be cases where a doctor could get too concerned or too overly involved, but theyr would likely be this way no matter what kind of job that they do because this is probably the kind of person that they are. Personally I want to have a doctor who cares about what I am going thru and tries to understand my needs. This much more impresses me than one who is standoffish and has no manner with patients at all.

  • Marlon

    May 5th, 2013 at 8:39 PM

    Burnout is due to stress usually. An stress gets to everyone at some point in time. Key is handling it. How we handle decides whether there is burnout or not. So whether it is stress due to compassion or just work pressure the solution lies in handling it effectively. And these doctors who do have a burnout don’t seem to be doing that wry well.

  • Shayla

    May 6th, 2013 at 3:54 AM

    People get burned out not because they are too this or too that, but because they don’t yet know how to create a nice working balance between home and work and the other things that they like to do in their lives. It can be hard to find that right balance and if you don’t have that then it is going to trip you up.

  • Jenna

    May 6th, 2013 at 1:02 PM

    I definitely think so.having grown up in a home where my dad and brother are doctors I know how much of an effect a case may have on you.sometimes when you involve yourself too much into something you tend to become fatigued mentally and that in turn makes you feel burnt out.whats more,for doctors’ quality of service may deprove due to this burnout, thereby coming in the way of their work and in the recovery of the client.

  • VB

    May 6th, 2013 at 11:19 PM

    when I was in med school one of the first things that a professor told me was to never get attached to a patient or to get emotional about his condition.that would make you a good human probably but not a good doctor,he said.

    that is so true.feeling attached may be a good thing to do morally but when it is causing harm to you I dont see why you should.involvement and harming yourself are two different things if you ask me.

  • Matthew

    May 7th, 2013 at 4:02 AM

    Kind of feel like if you really love what you are doing, then burnout isn’t an issue.

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