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United Way of Lancaster County


Combatting Empathy Fatigue


Maybe I’m cynical, but if I see another commercial where a multinational billion dollar company says something like “we’re in this together” while inspirational music plays in the background and supermodels display their products, I’m liable to throw my TV out the window. I’m wondering if some of you can relate. When this pandemic began, I found these expressions to be inspirational and moving. Now I only see exploitation of a global health crisis. Logic tells me that reality is probably somewhere in the middle. What happened? How did my perspective shift so drastically and relatively quickly? The best answer I can give is that I’m tired. Compassion takes energy. Empathy is draining. Sooner or later it is possible that we will find our emotional well has run dry.

Over the past couple of years one of my professional interests has been in studying “empathy fatigue”.   This term is most often used in relation to people who have careers that require them to be empathetic toward an individual they are helping. While the majority of the research in this field has been done with healthcare professionals, the list of professions where empathy fatigue could be an issue is much broader than that. Outside of the context of work, I’m wondering if many in our community are experiencing empathy fatigue as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here are some symptoms of empathy fatigue:

  • Chronic physical and emotional exhaustion
  • Depersonalization
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of self-contempt
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Weight loss
  • Headaches


I have to imagine that empathy fatigue is some part of the reason that we see so much divide in our community as it pertains to re-opening businesses and social gathering spaces. When our capacity to display empathy toward others is depleted, we tend to be pretty bad at communicating effectively with each other and end up angry and frustrated. This is why I think it is essential for everyone in our community to take a moment and evaluate ourselves. How much of a capacity for empathy do I have right now? Is my ability to communicate being negatively affected because I am unable to acknowledge the humanity of the person in front of me? Is the physical, spiritual, and/or emotional exhaustion I’m feeling tied to the fact that I’ve depleted my empathy reserves?

There are some simple but effective ways to combat empathy fatigue. Most of them have to do with what I like call recharging your “internal batteries”.

  • Talking about feelings with a trusted person and/or a mental health professional.
  • Making a commitment to regularly exercise.
  • Developing a healthy diet.
  • Getting restful sleep.
  • Developing hobbies different from work.
  • Developing positive coping strategies.
  • Reaching out to support groups and networks.


You may notice that these strategies for increasing your ability to empathize with others are all basically rooted in taking good care of yourself physically and psychologically. We know from study after study that the better we take care of ourselves, the higher our capacity is to be truly present with others and communicate with compassion. Reader, if you can relate at all to feeling empathy fatigue, I’d encourage you to choose at least one of these seven categories and make a commitment to positive incremental change in that area. Maybe you will choose to focus on a healthier diet, or perhaps you will finally pick up that guitar that has been sitting in the corner all these years. Whatever you may choose, it is a step toward better emotional health…and fewer broken televisions.