Burned Out? Try a Little Tenderness

otis redding

Thanks to Julian Izbiky for sharing “Does Taking Time For Compassion Make Doctors Better At Their Jobs?NPR (April 28, 2019). It’s about doctor burnout, but its lessons apply equally to lawyers[1] and anyone else who might benefit from the “helper therapy principle” — the idea that helping someone helps yourself — something research shows is especially useful as an antidote to career burnout.

The article profiles the research of Dr. Stephen Trzeciak and Dr. Anthony Mazzarelli, colleagues in a major medical system looking to improve patient care. They started with a question:  “Can treating patients with medicine and compassion make a measurable difference on the wellbeing of both patients and doctors?” 1,000 scientific abstracts and 250 research papers convinced them the answer was a resounding yes.

“When health care providers take the time to make human connections that help end suffering, patient outcomes improve and medical costs decrease. Among other benefits, compassion reduces pain, improves healing, lowers blood pressure and helps alleviate depression and anxiety.”

The two c-authored Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference to describe their findings and to prescribe how compassion can be learned. And once it’s learned, a little goes a long way:

“One study they cite shows that when patients received a message of empathy, kindness and support that lasted just 40 seconds their anxiety was measurably reduced.”

Plus, it was as blessed to give as to receive:

“But compassion doesn’t just benefit its recipients … Researchers at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania found that when people spent time doing good for others … it actually changed their perception of time to make them feel they had more of it.

“For doctors, this point is crucial. Fifty-six percent say they don’t have time to be empathetic.

“‘The evidence shows that when you invest time in other people, you actually feel that you have more time, or that you’re not so much in a hurry,’ Trzeciak says.”

Did you catch that? Taking a moment to connect human-to-human “actually changed their perception of time to make them feel they had more of it” — an astonishing concept for doctors and lawyers enslaved to a clock that measures time, money, and productivity in six-minute increments.[2]

That’s not the only paradigm-shifting implication of Trzeciak and Mazzarelli’s findings:

“‘We’ve always heard that burnout crushes compassion. It’s probably more likely that those people with low compassion, those are the ones that are predisposed to burnout,’ Trzeciak said. ‘That human connection — and specifically a compassionate connection — can actually build resilience and resistance to burnout.’

“Trzeciak and Mazzarelli hope their evidenced-based arguments will spur medical schools to make compassion part of the curriculum.”

How about we add it to the law school curriculum, too?

And thanks to “helper’s high,” the benefits of compassion and connection extend to non-professional work as well. Just think what that would do for “customer service.” (Those Discover commercials are the good, this is the bad and the ugly — and the funny.) And according to this Psychology Today article, you can feel the benefits:

“Helpers report a distinct physical sensation associated with helping; about half report that they experienced a “high” feeling, 43 percent felt stronger and more energetic, 28 percent felt warm, 22 percent felt calmer and less depressed, 21 percent experienced greater feelings of self-worth, and 13 percent experienced fewer aches and pains.”

Emily Esfahani Smith’s widely-cited book, The Power of Meaning:  Crafting a Life That Matters (2017), makes the same point:  relationships and helping create meaning and chase away burnout. That’s was also the message of a 1997 classic on the subject, The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It, which also observed that burnout is both endemic and epidemic in workplace culture:

“Burnout is reaching epidemic proportions among North American workers today. It’s not so much that something has gone wrong with us but rather that there have been fundamental changes in the workplace, and the nature of our jobs.

“The conventional wisdom is that burnout is primarily a problem of the individual. That is, people burn out because of flaws in their characters, behavior, or productivity. According to this perspective, people are the problem, and the solution is to change them or get rid of them.

“But our research argues most emphatically otherwise, As a result of extensive study, we believe that burnout is not a problem of the people themselves but of the social environment in which people work. The structure and functioning of the workplace shape how people interact with one another and how they carry out their jobs. When the workplace does not recognize the human side of work, then the risk of burnout grows, carrying a high price with it.”

Dr. Trzeciak used his research findings to turn around his own career burnout. Here’s his TEDxPenn talk. He also “prescribes the same for anyone, not just health care providers, suffering from mental or emotional exhaustion.”

“‘Look around you and see those in need of compassion and give your 40 seconds of compassion,’ he says. ‘See how it transforms your experience.’”

Julian Izbiky wrote this when he emailed me the article:  “I’ve always thought that the practice of law was about more than the documents and that the joy of the practice was connecting with the clients and the other participants in the deals.”

Got 40 seconds to give it a try?

And now, if you’re like me, Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” has been playing in the background. How about a listen? Here’s his version. And here’s the Three Dog Night cover.

[1] As I’ve said before, burnout is legion in the professions. I Googled “burnout doctors lawyers” and got tons of hits, including this one:  “I Fought The Law And The Law Won: My Burnout Story,” Forbes (May 17, 2018).

[2] Here’s a brief history of the billable hour in legal practice. The rationale for it might have seemed sound 60 years ago; my personal view is we could move on. Nobody kept timesheets at my firm.

Author: Kevin Rhodes

Kevin Rhodes draws insight and perspective from his prior career in law, business, and consulting, from his studies in economics, psychology, neuroscience, entrepreneurship, and technology, and from personal life experience.

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