Objective: Empathy and burnout are two related yet distinct constructs that are relevant to clinical healthcare staff. The nature of their relationship is uncertain and this review aimed to complete a rigorous, systematic exploration of the literature investigating the relationship between burnout and empathy in healthcare staff.
Design: A systematic review was conducted in accordance with the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) guidance.
Data sources: Search terms (Burnout OR Burn-out OR "Burn out") AND (Empathy OR Empath*) enabled identification of studies investigating burnout and empathy in healthcare staff, using five electronic data bases (MEDLINE, PsycINFO, CINAHL Plus, PubMed, and SCOPUS). Manual searching amongst reference lists of eligible articles was also completed.
Review methods: Databases were searched for studies published in the English language, from inception to February 2017. Key inclusion criteria were: 1) participants who were nurses or medical professionals, 2) full written manuscript in English, 3) use of the Maslach Burnout Inventory to assess burnout and a standardized outcome measure for empathy, 4) quantitative methodology exclusively.
Results: Ten eligible studies were reviewed. Of those, seven were conducted in countries where English was not the first language. Eight of the studies provided empirical support for a negative relationship between empathy and burnout. One study provided support for a positive relationship between burnout and empathy. One study reported contradictory evidence with positive and negative correlations between different subscales of the empathy and burnout measures. In general, the quality of the studies was assessed to be good. However, some of the studies failed to provide information pertaining to sample size, with the reporting of data less than adequate from one study.
Conclusions: There was consistent evidence for a negative association between burnout and empathy. This review avoided a common English-speaking country bias of some areas of the literature. Given that all of the studies reviewed were cross sectional, further research is necessary to establish causality.
Keywords: Burnout; Empathy; Healthcare staff; Systematic review.