(Photo by Fizkes/Shutterstock)

You’re watching a video of someone walking a tightrope between two Manhattan skyscrapers and your heart rate elevates, your palms get sweaty. Your child is sick, and you literally feel their pain. A friend is going through a divorce, and you are willingly, happily their sounding board. These are examples of empathy, a vital emotion that fosters human connection. Many argue there is too little of it.

But over the last two and a half years, some have come to believe there is too much. People are burned out from caring. Not just the doctors and first responders who bore the brunt of the pandemic, but people throughout the business community.

Jamil Zaki, PhD., a professor of psychology at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab, thinks it’s a mistake to jettison efforts to create a more empathetic workplace: there is science that proves that empathy makes better leaders, and those leaders can lead their organizations to greater success. Rather, we need to focus on developing the right kind of empathy, which can actually reduce burnout. He spoke in a From Day One webinar titled, “The HR Leader’s Dilemma: Sustainable Empathy for Difficult Times.”

“For a long time, the role of empathy in the workplace was unclear,” he said. “It was too squishy.” People assumed that the nice guy would finish last. But that’s backwards. Empathy is a workplace superpower, and you can train yourself to improve it. Among the benefits: increased collaboration, better morale, decreased stress, more effective leadership, and more inclusive attitudes.

Caring Deeply Has Risks

There are costs, too. You can be overwhelmed when you care deeply about other people. In a very personal story, Zaki focused on the health care professionals who work in a pediatric neonatal unit–the people who cared for Zaki’s daughter when she suffered a stroke at birth. “These are people who drink from a firehose of human misery every day, and them come back to do it again.” While his daughter recovered, Zaki remained deeply moved by the people who helped him and his wife through such a harrowing journey.

While working on a book about empathy, he shadowed some of these same people and saw firsthand the fallout of this level of empathy. “Many of them, especially nurses, seem drained by the care, obsessed with their patients. They blamed themselves if something went wrong, even if it wasn’t their fault, and they rarely cared for themselves. This resulted in anxiety, depression, and thoughts of leaving a job they loved.”

That experience is echoed in other industries in the last couple of years, Zaki said.  “I have talked to tons of leaders who say these things have taken over their entire organizations. I think burnout may be the vibe of the 2020s.”

But there is hope.

Strategies for Successful Empathy

To keep empathy from being debilitating, you need to have self-compassion. “We beat ourselves up in a thousand ways every day,” said Zaki. A lot of leaders wear self-criticism as a badge of honor and one of the reasons they have reached their current level of achievement.

Jamil Zaki, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab

It can be a good strategy in the short term, but over a longer period, it can increase stress, depression, anxiety, social disconnection, and burnout. “It’s not just unproductive personally, but as a leadership strategy,” Zaki said. “It gets in the way of growing the people around you. Self-criticism is all about you, and you are less able to connect with what is going on with others,” he said. If you can’t focus on what your team members need, how will you help them grow?

The Three Kinds of Empathy

Empathy isn’t just one thing. Rather, it is three ways we connect with other people’s emotions, Zaki noted. Imagine a very good friend meets you and is demonstrably upset about something. They are weeping. You might feel bad yourself, sharing the feelings. You may even cry with them. That’s emotional empathy. Maybe you’re the type who wants to understand what they are feeling sad. That’s cognitive empathy. If you care about what they are feeling and want them to feel better, that is empathic concern.

These may all sound similar enough that it makes no difference. But you can feel someone’s pain and not understand it. All these types are different in different people’s brains and according to the situation.

Sharing someone’s feelings works well when you are working closely in a team. But not taking those feelings on yourself is crucial when you are having difficult conversations, like giving feedback to a team member. Understanding someone’s perspective is important when you don’t come from the same point of reference, as in negotiations.

The first type of empathy is the most likely to drain us, said Zaki. “But empathic concern can lead to well-being, is pro-social, and decreases stress. Physicians who exhibit this last kind of empathy have less burnout, and Zaki said there is research showing that how much emotional empathy a first-year medical student exhibits can effectively predict burnout.

There may be times when you feel the only option is to cry alongside that friend you meet who is having a bad day. “That’s not true,” Zaki said. “Sometimes people don’t want you to share what they feel, but to understand it and show concern.”

Empathy is a Muscle You Can Develop

A lot of people think empathy is hardwired into our brains or coded into our genes, and that if you are empathic, it’s because you were born that way. While it’s true that some people may be born with more empathy, Zaki said his research, and that of others, clearly shows that it is less a trait than a skill you can build. “Experiences matter more, and some can cause empathy to shrink, others to grow.”

There are meditation exercises that help people become more empathetic. Research has shown that immersing ourselves in novels, plays, movies and other works of fiction can increase it. Having diverse friendships with people who are different than you also works the empathy muscle. There are caveats, however:

Don’t let your empathy bleed into “fix-it syndrome,” he warned. When you listen with empathy to a problem, don’t attempt to solve it unless asked. Most of the time, people just want a sounding board anyway. Leaping in to fix something can infantilize people. Research also shows it is bad for inclusion, and fixers tend to offer solutions more often to women and other marginalized people.

Ask people questions rather than trying to relate it to something that happened to you. “Their shoes won’t fit you,” he said. People have different thoughts and reactions to the same situation. Your job is to understand what they think and feel, not relate it to you.

Be open to the very idea of change, or you are less likely to benefit from it. Zaki talked about research showing about half of us believe empathy levels are set and can’t be changed. But research shows that those people are less likely to benefit from these exercises or experience less benefit.

Make self-compassion the norm at your company by telling stories of difficulties and accepting empathic concern from others. It’s hard to break the habit of stoicism in the business world, but Zaki makes a case for it in an article he wrote for Harvard Business Review. “Leaders have to model openness and vulnerability.”

Empathy can become an occupational hazard, he said. But it is necessary. Use it wisely by engaging in self-compassion and caring about the pain of others, rather than sharing it. “It’s a skill we can use without drowning.”

Those interested in building the empathy muscle can find help at Zaki’s website, where there are exercises available. He also recommends YouTube videos by Kristin Neff and Chris Germer.

Editor’s note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this webinar, Quantum Health, which helps people navigate the health care system.

Lisa Jaffe is a freelance writer who lives in Seattle with her son and a very needy rescue dog named Ellie Bee. She enjoys reading, long walks on the beach, and trying to get better at ceramics.