How To Avoid Empathy Burnout

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  • by Zak Renzetti-Voit

I have worked at SEEK for almost 6 years, and in that time, I have experienced and learned a thing…or twelve. My job is essentially to help brands better understand the humans they serve, allowing them to make innovations that can improve their lives (via insights, ideas, brand strategy or creative storytelling). 

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. The main constant at SEEK is that we use empathy to help solve the problem. We believe that empathy is a human’s greatest problem-solving tool. 

SEEK’s time spent studying and leveraging empathy in our work has allowed me to cross paths with empathy experts in the fields of psychology, anthropology and sociology. The time I have spent with these experts over the past ~6 years has helped me become a better son, brother, friend, fiancé, employee and church volunteer. Becoming more empathic has changed my life for the better and in every facet.

But it’s not always easy. Being empathic is difficult, energy-expensive and impossible to master. It’s like being the captain of a sailboat with a wind that is constantly changing directions. You always have to adjust, learn and re-navigate. And what you learned yesterday may not apply to today.

When people find out what field I work in, they inevitably ask me the same question: “how are you able to be empathic all of the time?”

To answer this, I tend to go to a series of difficult questions. If you are wondering the same thing, I’m going to ask them to you:

  • Have you ever had a friend cut you out of their life and you have no idea why?
  • Have you ever been homeless and living on the streets?
  • Have you ever been arrested wrongfully?
  • Have you ever been terrified that your ex is going to find you and hurt you?
  • Have you ever lost a friend, parent or loved one, and been powerless to stop it?

I’m fortunate that I have never had to say “yes” to any of the questions above. But unfortunately, they are all real-life examples that have been shared with me from different consumers while leading research and spending time with them in their home.

Another difficult example happened early on in my career at SEEK. While on in-home research, a woman confided in me about her experience being raped. I was emotionally numb for a week afterwards and all of my emotions were off. I had difficulty making decisions and found myself crying sporadically. It took me some time (and a lot of emotional energy) to remove myself from that difficult place until I was back to what I would call my “emotional normal.”

So, what happens when those emotions of being empathic are overwhelming? How do I avoid empathy burnout? The short answer is by practicing self-care that springs from self-awareness.

Becoming more self-aware starts by paying attention to your own feelings. It is helpful to identify any physical reactions associated with your emotions or feelings. For example, I know that when I’m stressed, it culminates as a knot in my stomach, and if not handled properly it will make me physically sick.

After identifying those feelings and emotions, one should not ignore them, but instead reflect on them. Therapist Deb Hannaford says, “When we try to get rid of our emotions or ignore them, we miss out on their meaningful messages.” To help reflect it may be beneficial to remember a time when a similar emotion or feeling happened in the past – and reminding yourself what was needed in that moment. 

Processing your emotions out loud is also key. This may look like talking to a therapist, speaking with a judgement-free resource/friend or verbally processing while talking to yourself out loud. Whatever the method, the message is the same - it’s important to get it (your emotions) out. 

The longer I have worked at SEEK (and with a personal therapist) the better I have learned to become more self-aware while learning how to better manage challenging emotions, such as the ones experienced in the examples I shared. For me, in order to prevent empathy burnout, I need to talk about it with a trusted source that is simply open to listening without responding. I need a high-energy, sweaty outlet (e.g. running, basketball, biking) and sometimes I need a fun, solo activity (e.g. riding my motorcycle, going for a walk with no agenda, visiting a museum or art gallery). But without self-awareness, I would not know any of this. It took me first becoming more self-aware to best find the way to process my emotions, which helped offset the empathy burnout that so many in this field often face. 

When it comes to avoiding empathy burnout, everyone has their own form of relief. I have opened up this conversation to other SEEK’ers and here is what some of them had to say about preventing empathy burnout: 

“I engage with my personal thoughts and feelings by spending time alone or journaling. Then I intentionally engage in activities that will bring my heart joy. And finally, I act on behalf of myself.” – Courtney PeGan-Stevens

“It is helpful to talk out what I'm feeling, but it's crucial that the person on the receiving end is in a space where they can receive the information without becoming overwhelmed with unnecessary emotional labor.” – Kellie Coppola

“I've slowly found a need to identify solo activities, such as pinball or skateboarding, that help me set time aside where I'm (ideally) not thinking about anything other than what's in front of me. In pinball, distractions lead to lost balls, while in skateboarding distraction lead to falls. Both of these things make me just a little sad.” – Kyle Koch

“I reflect. I take breaks after. I even process things aloud to myself like a crazy person when I am alone.” – Justin Masterson

The true solution to avoiding empathy burnout requires you to self-identify what works best for you - there is no one-size-fits-all fix. Give yourself grace and patience, as figuring out what your outlet is may take some time. Your sources of relief may change over the years, or you might just feel downright overwhelmed and burnt out from the start. But, the beauty about becoming more empathic is that It will actually help you communicate your needs better. And practicing empathy – despite the risk of burnout – has the power to radically better your life. 

“The natural functions of emotion is to communicate our condition to another person. And when we are able to do that, we trust that person, and we can go on with getting taken care of.” – Jodi Halpern MD, PHD 

"I would love to hear your successes (and failures) at preventing empathy burnout. Let's chat:"