Finding the Balance Between Empathy and Burnout

stressed worker New research from Michigan State University found that managers who invest a lot of energy into ensuring all workplace decisions are fair are at a higher risk of feeling both mentally and emotionally drained. On the flip side, a recently survey from Lee Hecht Harrison revealed that most supervisors are not empathetic.

"We were interested in better understanding the consequences of fair behaviors for actors, as opposed to recipients, with the suspicion that acting fair may come at some cost to managers," said Russell E. Johnson, assistant professor at MSU. "If so, then managers and organizations need to be made aware of this fact so they can take steps to mitigate the negative side-effects of being fair."

The study, which was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, involved surveying 82 bosses twice a day for several weeks. They found that those who reported having mental fatigue from dealing with workplace fairness were less cooperative and engaging. This change in attitude continued into the next day.

The problem, however, is that these fair decisions are vital to the attitudes and engagement of employees. The key, then, is to find the perfect balance between empathy and burnout.

"At the end of the day, you cannot get away from the fact that making sure procedures used to make decisions and allocate resources can be depleting activity," Johnson said. "It is a critically important activity, though, so this is not to say that managers should avoid procedural fairness. Quite the opposite."

He suggests that managers start to anticipate when procedural fairness will become especially important, such as during performance reviews. Then, they should take extra time for themselves to recharge. Johnson suggests these managers get enough sleep and exercise, as well as a healthy diet. It is also important they get enough downtime away from work.

In the Lee Hecht Harrison Survey, 626 American workers were asked to rate their managers' ability to show empathy in work situations. The majority felt their managers could make an improvement -- 22% said their managers were "not at all understanding," and 30% said their managers were "rarely" understanding.

"Employees have diverse backgrounds and experiences that leaders may not share," said Kristen Leverone, a senior VP at Lee Hect Harrison. "If a leader isn't listening or hearing, employees won't be forthcoming or feel secure. So effective leaders must try to look beyond themselves and open up to other points of view. Failing to do this has serious consequences and will undermine trust, collaboration and, ultimately, productivity."

To battle this type of decision fatigue, managers should create processes wherever possible to streamline certain aspects of work and take away some of the guess work. They can also counteract the fatigue by ensuring their downtime is spent completely away from work, engaging in activities that help their brains recharge and give them a better work-life balance.