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The Power of Compassion on Mental Health

The Power of Compassion on Mental Health

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It’s Monday. You step through the office door, and you immediately drown in 1,654 “URGENT PLEASE REVERT ASAP” emails, absurd requests from colleagues (“Help me populate these Excel sheets by noon, please”), and endless unfinished tasks from the previous week. You (barely) get through the day. But the mental exhaustion doesn't stop there. You still have parenting, caregiving, and other responsibilities to juggle. Is it any wonder you—like 52% of U.S. workers—feel completely burned out?

As is apparent from “The Great Resignation”, some people have freed themselves from burnout by quitting their jobs. But what if you can't or don't want to? How can you feel better? Well, there is quite a counterintuitive burnout helper: compassion for others.

What is compassion? How is it different from empathy? 

Compassion is an empathetic understanding of a person's feelings, accompanied by a desire to act on that person's behalf. In other words, it's empathy (definition: our ability to take the perspective of and feel another person's emotions) “in action”.

How does compassion help? 

Wait a minute … helping others to help lesson burnout? When you're barely keeping yourself afloat? Yeah, right. Your skepticism is perfectly understandable. But it's time to shelve it away because there’s plenty of research backing compassion’s burnout-curing powers.

Take, for instance, this 2016 study on executive-level health care leaders: 91% of the executives highlighted compassion as an effective strategy in dealing with chronic and acute work stress. Need more convincing? How about this 2021 study on Iranian nurses, which found a negative correlation between compassion for others and burnout? Or this 2016 study on student midwives, which found that student midwives who’re less compassionate to others are more prone to burnout? 

How does it all work, though? Answer: by busting stress, a well-documented contributor to burnout, through the following two mechanisms:

  • Social support: According to the stress-buffering model of social support, individuals who have compassion for others are more likely to be supported by others—and are therefore less reactive to stress.
  • Self-kindness: Research shows that people who are more compassionate to others are more likely to be kinder to themselves and have less self-criticism (which often fuels stress-inducing feelings like anxiety and fear of failure).

Tips on practicing compassion for others 

Of course, practicing compassion for others is often easier said than done. Here are two tips that’ll quickly set you on the path to becoming a “compassion-master” at work:

  • Stay present and mindful: Remember that seemingly ridiculous request from your colleague to populate those Excel sheets by noon? Instead of jumping to the conclusion that your colleague is lazy, self-entitled, and looking for a pushover who’ll take on their deliverables, take a step back and ask yourself, “How can I understand where this person is coming from?” Maybe you’ll find that the task is indeed within your responsibilities. By really staying mindful and present, instead of letting your thoughts run wild and get deep into the uglier side of things (no thanks to biases and stereotypes), you could understand, connect with, and practice compassion for your colleagues—keeping burnout at bay.
  • Seek out friendships at work: Compassion is about helping people. But that’s impossible if no one at work wants your help (or if you don’t have anyone to help). So, do take active steps to make friends at work. Don't know how? An excellent place to start is to attend or plan work events, like happy hour or group lunch. Lean into the small talk: ask what they have planned for the weekend, where they're going on vacation, and other basic questions. This helps set the groundwork for deeper conversations.

Actively practicing compassion for others could help you help burnout. But it’s not the only time-tested remedy. Caring for yourself—both physically and emotionally—is, too. To learn more: 

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