The Role of Empathy in Burnout, Compassion Satisfaction, and Secondary Traumatic Stress among Social Workers

Soc Work. 2015 Jul;60(3):201-9. doi: 10.1093/sw/swv014.


Social workers are at risk for experiencing burnout and secondary traumatic stress (STS) as a result of the nature of their work and the contexts within which they work. Little attention has been paid to the factors within a social worker's control that may prevent burnout and STS and increase compassion satisfaction. Empathy, which is a combination of physiological and cognitive processes, may be a tool to help address burnout and STS. This article reports on the findings of a study of social workers (N = 173) that explored the relationship between the components of empathy, burnout, STS, and compassion satisfaction using the Empathy Assessment Index and the Professional Quality of Life instruments. It was hypothesized that higher levels of empathy would be associated with lower levels of burnout and STS, and higher levels of compassion satisfaction. Findings suggest that components of empathy may prevent or reduce burnout and STS while increasing compassion satisfaction, and that empathy should be incorporated into training and education throughout the course of a social worker's career.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Burnout, Professional / etiology*
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Social Work*
  • Stress, Psychological*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Young Adult