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The Cost of Compassion: When Emotional Stress Manifests Into Compassion Fatigue

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Skyler Place

In part one of this series, Dr. Skyler Place, Chief Behavioral Science Officer at Cogito, looks at the impact of cognitive overload in the workplace and offers tips on how to avoid it. 

Top-performing call center agents are organized, efficient, and naturally driven to help people. Employing high-quality agents is not just about hiring well and being lucky. It’s also important to ensure that they are set up for success – which partly includes helping them maintain low stress levels throughout their tenure with your company. In any industry, highly stressed workers cannot perform to their fullest potential, and frontline service workers are no exception. Constantly helping people in need pays an emotional toll, as reflected by today’s high turnover rates. In many circumstances, agents are experiencing a form of prolonged stress called compassion fatigue. 

In this second part of a three-part “wellness in the workplace” series, we’ll dig deeper into compassion fatigue and its effects as well as what you can do to help your employees mitigate this in the workplace.

Compassion Fatigue is the phenomenon of being emotionally overwhelmed from continuously empathizing with others. When we over-empathize, we begin to experience and take on others’ emotional distress. Those experiencing compassion fatigue may feel physically and mentally exhausted, apathetic towards the people around them, or inadequate in their daily lives. But how can other people’s problems affect us so heavily?

Think about the last time you watched a movie that made you cry. You weren’t experiencing a hardship personally, but you could sense and imagine the pain that the character was experiencing as if it were you. In these moments, you’re practicing empathy

Now imagine being an agent speaking with a customer regarding a beneficiary claim for the customer’s late mother. You can tell they are holding back tears and struggling to maintain composure. As a result, you feel a wave of sadness – you imagine what it would feel like to lose a parent and have to handle financial repercussions. This feeling indicates that you’re empathizing with the customer; however, this circumstance is a bit different from watching a sad movie because you feel a responsibility to help the customer. This experience is referred to as compassion. The motivation to change the situation is what differentiates compassion from empathy.

Compassion is associated with increased concern, a need to help create social connection, and psychological well-being. In most circumstances, it’s a highly desirable state and an indicator of emotional intelligence. In the phone call described, experiencing compassion should improve your ability to understand and communicate with the customer; however, imagine phone calls like this happening twice in one day – or perhaps three, four, or five times a day, five days a week. You may notice the emotional distress of others beginning to seep into your own life. Next thing you know, you’ll feel tired, begin to doubt your abilities as an employee, and begin to struggle to connect with new customers as you become numb to the barrage of emotional stimuli. This is compassion fatigue sneaking up on you.


Why Do Someone Else’s Feelings Impact How I Feel?


Let’s take a look at brain behavior when we’re witnessing others experience emotions. Mirror neurons are small circuits of brain cells in the premotor cortex and inferior parietal cortex. If you were to be pricked by a needle, brain imaging tools would show that certain mirror neurons are lighting up, or activating, in response. This is normal, as some areas of your brain are working every time you are introduced to new stimuli. 

But mirror neurons are aptly named for their ability to “mirror” the brains of those around us. If you were to instead see someone else be pricked by a needle, the same area of your brain activates (but to a lesser extent). This same phenomenon occurs for all emotions, which provides evidence that our brains inherently imagine what it’s like to be other people and feel their pain. 

However, when we hit a point of compassion fatigue, this system no longer functions the same way. Our brains don’t mirror as effectively and we lose empathy for the people around us. This can be particularly distressing for someone who identifies as highly empathetic because they have a diminished ability to connect with others. Ironically, highly empathetic people are more likely to experience compassion fatigue.


My Employees Deal with Difficult Calls All the Time and May Develop Compassion Fatigue. How Can I Help?


As with many elements of mental health, awareness is the first step towards systematic improvement. As a leader, it’s important to educate your employees on the characteristics and risk factors of compassion fatigue. Training or education materials should include descriptions of stress-related states (cognitive overload, compassion fatigue, and burnout), stress-reduction activities (breathing exercises, stretching, breaking down large issues into smaller problems), and an overview of staff support resources (managerial support, insurance benefits for mental health care). Employees will benefit greatly by knowing their employer recognizes prolonged stress as a valid issue. In fact, 90% of employees said that an employer who recognizes the importance of mental health is more likely to retain employees.

It’s also important to demonstrate to your employees that their company is willing to invest in making their jobs less stressful. Cogito’s software has been developed with frontline employees in mind. Our “Empathy Cue” targets compassion fatigue directly by identifying moments in which empathy is appropriate. This consistently empowers agents to learn when they should respond empathetically rather than trying to constantly analyze the customer’s emotional state. Our product design, notifications, and updates are all created with cutting-edge AI technology to maximize emotional intelligence on every customer call. We believe that enhancing emotional intelligence is the best way to improve the world of customer service.

In part 3 of this series, we’ll take a close look at a phenomenon called burnout, and how employees in call centers are at high risk. 

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