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How to Prevent Burnout with Empathy

Taking care of yourself and others is a potent stress-buster.

A drawing of a rope tied to a blue background.

Ever wonder why some people never seem to get burned out despite difficult conditions in their workplace? The answer lies in part with empathy, an emotional intelligence competency packed with potent stress-taming powers. When you engage empathy, you seek to understand people’s needs, desires and points of view. You feel and express genuine concern for their well-being.

Research shows that expressing empathy produces physiological effects that calm us and strengthen our long-term sustainability. So not only do others benefit from our empathy, we benefit, too. Here’s a two-part strategy that can help break the burnout cycle. 

1. Practice Self-Compassion

Stop trying to be a hero and start caring for yourself. Here are two practical ways to do that:

Curb the urge to overwork. When the pressure is on, we’re often tempted to work more hours to “get on top of things.” But overwork is a trap. Just doing more rarely fixes problems, and it usually makes things worse, because we are essentially manufacturing our own stress. 

We shut the proverbial door on others, thinking that, if we can get away, we can at least do our job without getting caught up in people’s drama. When nothing changes or things get worse, we give up—which leads to isolation and more stress. It’s a vicious cycle. So, instead of working more, find ways to renew yourself when you’re stressed: Exercise, practice mindfulness, spend more time with loved ones and get more sleep.

Stop beating yourself up. Stress is often the result of being too hard on ourselves when we don’t meet our own expectations. Acknowledge how you feel and that others would feel similarly in the same situation. Be kind and forgiving. Shifting your mindset from threatened to self-compassion will strengthen your resiliency.

2. Show Empathy

Taking steps toward self-compassion will prepare you emotionally to reach out to others. But let’s face it: Empathy is not the norm in many workplaces. In fact, lack of empathy and even the depersonalization of others are symptoms of the emotional exhaustion that comes with burnout. Here are a few tips to make empathy part of how you deal with people at work:

Build friendships. Most people can rattle off a dozen reasons why you shouldn’t be friends with co-workers. We believe just the opposite. Real connections and friendships at work matter—a lot. 

According to the Harvard Grant Study, one of the longest-running longitudinal studies of human development, having warm relationships is essential to health, well-being and happiness. Other research shows that caring for and feeling cared for by others lowers our blood pressure and enhances our immunity.

Value people for who they are. Too often when we talk to others, we hear what we want to instead of really listening. Our biases and stereotypes get in the way of our ability to understand and connect with others. The resulting conflicts cause unnecessary stress. To prevent this, be curious about people. Ask yourself, “How can I understand where this person is coming from?” Listen with an open mind.

Coach people. According to a 2012 study in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, coaching others has positive psychophysiological effects that restore the body’s natural healing and growth processes and improve stamina. When we care enough to invest time in developing others, we become less preoccupied with ourselves, which balances the toxic effects of stress and burnout.

One caution: Empathy and compassion can be powerful forces in our fight against stress—until they aren’t. Caring too much can take a toll on your emotional resources and lead to more stress, so pay attention to your limits.

It’s worth the risk, though. Once you commit to caring about yourself, you can start to care about others. In the process, you will create resonant relationships that are good for you and the people you work with.

Annie McKee is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program. She is the author of the forthcoming How to Be Happy at Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017), Primal Leadership (with Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, Harvard Business Review Press, 2013), and Resonant Leadership (Harvard Business Review Press, 2005). Kandi Wiens is an executive coach and organizational change consultant. Her research focuses on building individual and organizational resiliency to change, emotional intelligence, and burnout.

This is a condensed version of an article that was originally published in the Harvard Business Review (HBR). SHRM has partnered with HBR to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies.

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Illustration by Brucie Rosch for HR Magazine.


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