Empathy and burnout in male and female helping professionals

Authors

  • Dr. Carol A. Williams

    Corresponding author
    1. An associate professor in the College of Nursing, University of South Carolina.
    • College of Nursing, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC 29208
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Abstract

Relationships between empathy and burnout and possible confounding influences of sex and profession were explored in a sample of 492 male and female nurses, social workers, and teachers. Respondents completed Mehrabian's Emotional Empathy Scale, Stotland's Fantasy-Empathy Scale, and the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). There were no main effects of profession on empathy or burnout variables. There was, however, an interaction effect of sex and profession on depersonalization, which was accounted for by subjects in social work and teaching. Women had significantly higher empathy scores than men; however, men had higher scores than male normative groups. Age related negatively to depersonalization and emotional exhaustion for women, whereas percentage of work time spent in direct practice correlated with depersonalization for men. The possibility that empathy and burnout might represent opposite poles of the same underlying construct was examined but not found. Instead, emotional empathy was significantly positively correlated with both emotional exhaustion and personal accomplishment, whereas emotional exhaustion was also positively related to depersonalization. It is hypothesized that high emotional empathy may predispose helping professionals to emotional exhaustion and that emotional exhaustion, if not mediated by personal accomplishment, may lead to the development of depersonalization. This more complex, interactive model of the empathy–burnout relationship needs longitudinal study.

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