Objective: To investigate how medical students' empathy is related to their mental health and burnout.
Methods: This cross-sectional study included 886 medical students from curriculum years 1-6. The cognitive, affective, and behavioural dimensions of empathy were measured with self-report questionnaires and an emotion recognition test. Regressions were used to test the relationship between the empathy dimensions, depressive symptoms, anxiety, and burnout as well as the influence of curriculum year and gender.
Results: Cognitive and behavioural empathy were significantly related to less mental health issues and burnout, whereas affective empathy was related to more mental health issues and burnout. Students in later curriculum years reported less mental health issues and burnout than students in earlier years, whereas no systematic difference could be observed for empathy. Female students reported more mental health issues and burnout as well as higher empathy, except for behavioural empathy for which male students scored higher.
Conclusions: The cognitive, affective, and behavioural dimensions of empathy were differently related to the mental health and burnout of medical students. Students presenting mental health issues or burnout might have more difficulty to adapt their behaviour in social situations and keep a certain distance when taking others' perspective.
Keywords: Undergraduate; communication skills; medical education research; student support.