10.5.21 Boda Insights: Burnout and the impact of empathy


The pandemic has changed where we work, when we work, how much we work, and how we work. It has also affected our physical and mental health.

In the last six months, we have been hearing from more of the leaders and teams we coach that they are stressed, unmotivated, and burned out.

Indeed’s latest survey found that 52% of workers are feeling burned out, and 67% of them believe the feeling has gotten worse over the course of the pandemic.

Jennifer Moss, author of The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It, argues that burnout is a mental health issue. Her research finds that “while the average person says they are ‘fine’ 14 times a week when they are asked how they are doing, 19% of the time they are lying.“

Moss believes—and we agree—that leaders can make a big difference in the lives of their co-workers by listening, asking helpful questions, and showing empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand someone else’s experience, perspective and feelings. It’s when we put ourselves in their position and imagine how they (not we!) would think and feel in their situation. Being fully empathetic also involves self-awareness, self-management and impulse control, caring about how others feel and what they need, and respecting different perspectives.

Research shows that empathy is core to personal and life satisfaction, makes us better family members and friends, and makes us better leaders.

Helen Riess, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, has studied empathy extensively. In her 2017 article on physicians and empathy, Riess writes “studies show empathy declines during medical training. Without targeted interventions, uncompassionate care and treatment devoid of empathy results in patients who are dissatisfied. They are then much less likely to follow through with treatment recommendations, resulting in poorer health outcomes and damaged trust in health providers.”

We believe the same is true for leaders. Even the U.S. Army—known for its rigorous and research-based approach to everything, including leadership—refers to empathy as absolutely required for competent leadership in the US Army Field Manual on Leader Development.

So what can we do if we’re not feeling or acting very empathetically these days?

A recent New York Times article suggests we can build our empathy capabilities by talking to new people, trying new activities that others participate in (such as their sports and hobbies, or attending services at their church/synagogue/mosque), and/or joining others in a shared cause. We can also build our empathy through coaching techniques: by increasing our self-awareness, practicing self-management by thinking about the impact on others before we speak or act, actively considering how others are feeling, and actively seeking new and different perspectives.

The pandemic is taking a lot out of all of us. Wouldn’t it be great if we could find a way to understand, support, and encourage each other a little more, so we can all get through this with less stress, dissatisfaction, and burnout?

If you’d like to talk about any of this research, or how we can help you think about and support the development of your leaders, please let us know.

Jennifer Porter, Managing Partner

Jennifer L. Porter Jennifer Porter is the Managing Partner of The Boda Group. She is a graduate of Bates College and the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and an experienced operations executive. As an executive and team coach, Jennifer bridges the art and science of leadership to help leaders become more self-aware, authentic, and effective. Her significant and growing understanding of how great leaders think, behave, and change help her clients transform their leadership. Learn more about Jennifer or get in touch.