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Enhancing Empathy in the Helping Professions

Gail Kinman, Dr and Louise Grant, Dr Professor of Occupational Health Psychology, University of Bedfordshire, Bedfordshire, UK
Principal Lecturer in Social Work, University of Bedfordshire, Bedfordshire, UK

Human empathy is generally considered to be an extension of more ancient mammalian emotional contagion which enables one person to perceive, understand and share some of the emotional and mental states of another person (Watt, 2007). The demonstration of empathy is a pre-requisite for “helping” professionals, such as nurses, social workers, psychotherapists and physicians, as it underpins authentic person-centred care. Nonetheless, the negative implications of “uncontrolled” empathy have been highlighted. 

This chapter explores the empathy construct in helping contexts and discusses the implications of over- or under-identification with patients and clients for the well-being and performance of helping professionals. Particular focus is placed on the concept of “accurate” empathy which refers to the requirement for helping professionals to forge empathic and authentic connections with patients and clients whilst maintaining clear personal and emotional boundaries. 

The advantages of utilising extended models of empathy that encompass competencies such as reflective ability, emotional literacy and social competence are discussed. Also considered are ways in which empathic skills can be developed in order to manage the emotional demands inherent in helping professions more effectively.

Empathy in Helping Professionals: Negative Implications
Negative Effects of Empathy

  • Emotional Labour
  • Burnout
    Burnout has been defined “as a syndrome comprising emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who work with people in some capacity” 
  • Individual and Contextual Differences

How Can Accurate Empathy Be Enhanced?
Although accurate empathy is fundamental to forging therapeutic relationships with patients and clients, this quality is not necessarily well developed in helping professionals (Reynolds & Scott, 2000). 

Hojat (2007) has highlighted several approaches that have the potential to enhance accurate empathy in helping professionals, including
  •  exposure to role models,
  •  role playing, 
  • recording and deconstructing encounters with service users, 
  • shadowing patients and clients, and 
  • studying literature and the arts. 
  1. Cultural awareness has also been highlighted as a crucial element in forging effective empathic relationships.
  2. Mindfulness
  3. Reflective Supervision 
  4. Creative and Reflective Writing and the Arts