Weekly Wrap: How Empathy Can Help Ease Employee Job Burnout

As a long-time member of the workforce, I understand first-hand how easy it is to get burned out on your job.

In fact, the problem of job burnout has been growing as employees have had to deal with the pressure to do more (usually with less) during the Great Recession and its aftermath. Anyone involved in talent management these days knows that this is a big reason why employee engagement scores are so terrible, and, why we’re really at a tipping point where that could either start to improve and get better, or, go the other way and get a whole lot worse.

That’s why this story from Northern California’s Contra Costa Times (I found it in the San Jose Mercury News) on a new worker burnout prevention strategy grabbed my attention.

Empathy as a talent management tool

It’s about a project that Eve Ekman, a social welfare researcher at UC Berkeley, offered to the San Mateo County probation department that would cultivate empathy to help ease job burnout for the staff and probation officers. According to the story:

Ekman is among a vanguard of researchers taking decades of studies on job burnout in a new direction.

Instead of looking only at external factors causing burnout, such as heavy workloads, inadequate resources and difficult work relationships, they’re focusing how workers can develop empathy to spark and sustain enthusiasm for their work. In doing so, they increase their effectiveness, even in daunting work conditions.

Emotional exhaustion, lack of meaning and sense of effectiveness on the job can occur when a worker feels overwhelmed with demands that he or she can’t meet. If the strain worsens, workers may shut down emotionally to cope, viewing clients impersonally — a state called “depersonalization.” That in turn cuts off a flow of critical information between caregiver and client…

Cultivating empathy — the ability to understand the experience of another — is key to heading off burnout, and that takes simple cognitive shifts, Ekman explained. A critical step is developing curiosity toward a patient, inmate or client, she said.”

It’s an interesting story, and notion, because it gets to the root of what seems to bother a lot of workers who feel disengaged and burned out — that no one really understands what they are going through, and therefore, no one really cares.

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You don’t need a UC Berkeley researcher to tell you that, of course, because any half-awake manager probably knows it already. Understanding the challenges and difficulties employees are going through is key to helping them deal with those issues. The question is, can this program that is being used in the probation and justice system be refocused so that it can be applied to a little more common work environment?

That’s the next step here, but you don’t need to wait for that to start trying to offer a little more empathy to YOUR workers and employees, because you can do that and see some positive impact right now.

How Best Buy management is killing the company

Of course, there’s more than using empathy to combat job burnout in the news this week. Here are other HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of HR and talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Best Buy is gradually putting itself out of business. Forbes had a great article on how Best Buy’s shortsighted management practices are slowly killing the company. As someone who long-ago gave up on Best Buy, I can’t say I’m surprised. As Forbes’ Larry Downes observed, “To discover the real reasons behind the company’s decline, just take this simple test. Walk into one of the company’s retail locations or shop online.  And try, really try, not to lose your temper. … It’s not competition from Amazon that’s killing Best Buy here; Best Buy is doing most of the damage to itself.”
  • Anti-smoker bans are growing. USA Today reports on a disturbing trend: more employers are refusing to hire smokers. “As bans on smoking sweep the USA,” the newspaper says, “an increasing number of employers — primarily hospitals — are also imposing bans on smokers. They won’t hire applicants whose urine tests positive for nicotine use, whether cigarettes, smokeless tobacco or even patches. … The policies stir outrage, even in the public health community. “These policies represent employment discrimination. It’s a very dangerous precedent,” says Michael Siegel, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health. He says the restrictions punish smokers rather than helping them quit. “What’s next? Are you not going to hire overly-caffeinated people?” asks Nate Shelman, a smoker and Boise’s KBOI radio talk show host whose listeners debated the topic last month. “I’m tired of people seeing smokers as an easy piñata.”
  • New C-Suite trend – Chief Diversity Officer. With the economy slowly improving, diversity is starting to take more of a prominent position in the workplace. As The Wall Street Journal reports, “Some companies are adding a new executive to their C-suite lineup: Chief Diversity Officer. Tasked with creating an environment where women and minorities can flourish, CDOs generally have a hybrid job description that includes recruitment, human resources, marketing, ethics and legal compliance. … About 60% of Fortune 500 companies currently have a CDO or executive role designated for diversity, according to a recent study by Heidrick & Struggles, an executive search firm. Among them, 65% are female and 37% are African-American.”
  • Forced to re-apply for your job. An Atlantic City casino is making employees re-apply for their jobs after four years, according to an Associated Press story in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Applicants are being told they will have jobs only for as few as four years at a time, after which they will have to re-apply. That means competing with younger, fresher faces — a requirement that has never been made in the 33-year history of casino gambling in Atlantic City. … (that), the city’s main casino union says, will have the effect of purging the work force of all but the youngest, most attractive faces.”
  • Meaningless meetings. Do you hate meetings, especially because you have too many of them that are a complete waste of time? If so, you’ll appreciate this video. It’s a good perspective to start the New Year with.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


1 Comment on “Weekly Wrap: How Empathy Can Help Ease Employee Job Burnout

  1. Great set of news there! The empathy project is really interesting, although I would like to read more about the way the project itself was implemented. If I have got it right, it implies developing empathy between inmates and prison workers, something I would see very hard to obtain. And how would you apply it to a more “normal” work environment?
    About the anti-smoker ban: I have recently on some online forum discussed this topic with someone who presented itself as an employer and said he would not hire smokers at his company. I thought it was an especially bad case of “holier-than-thou” attitude, but apparently it´s a nationwide hysteria. That gets someone to worry, what comes next? I am a non-smoker, but I am appalled from this moralistic and dangerous stance.

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