Tired and heading to burnout? Neuroscience offers some help.

Kirke Olson

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Feeling exhausted from working with your clients, students or patients? The following statistics may not be much consolation, but at least they show you’re not alone.

  • 54.4% of physicians report at least one symptom of burnout in 2014, up from 45.5% in 2011(Shanafelt et al., 2015).
  • 40%–50% of new teachers may leave their profession within the first five years. This is at a time when there are a ballooning number of new teachers entering the field (Ingersoll, 2012; Riggs, 2013).
  • Across several studies, it appears that 21%–67% of mental health workers may be experiencing high levels of burnout (Morse et al., 2012).
  • A 2014 survey found that 68% of family physicians and 73% of general internists “would not choose the same specialty if they could start their careers anew” (Bodenheimer & Sinsky, 2014, p. 574).
  • A 2013 survey of 508 employees working for 243 health care employers found that 60% reported job burnout and 34% planned to look for a different job (Bodenheimer & Sinsky, 2014).

What is going on in the helping professions?

More importantly what can we do about it?

When I delve into the reasons for the exhaustion and burnout, I could go on to quote research about electronic medical records (a major culprit in the fatigue and frustrations of physicians, mental health providers, and their staff), authoritarian managerial style, or perceived school climate. But the research about the causes of fatigue and burnout, while factual, does not offer something to do right now to help.

Luckily, neuroscience research offers a hint for something to try—with no downside.

I’m writing this after an exhausting week that included battles with insurance companies, a suicidal client, a student death, and too many clients’ vivid descriptions of traumatic events. My week pushed me to investigate the concepts of compassion fatigue and burnout because I was experiencing it myself.

Charles Figley, the researcher who coined the term compassion fatigue (Figley, 1995), is quoted as follows:

Compassion fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper. (http://www.compassionfatigue.org/)

Compassion fatigue can lead to something worse: burnout, which is defined in Merriam–Webster’s dictionary as: “Exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/burnout). People who experience burnout usually leave their job—their profession—or, if they remain on the job, can seem like zombies to others.

I discovered a peer-reviewed research article by Olga Klimecki and colleagues (Klimecki, Leiberg, Ricard, & Singer, 2014), which was eye opening for me and I hope is for you…


This has been an excerpt from Tired and heading to burnout? Neuroscience offers some help. To download the full article, and more excellent material for the psychotherapist, please subscribe to our monthly magazine.


Bodenheimer, T., & Sinsky, C. (2014). From triple to quadruple aim: Care of the patient requires care of the provider. Annals of Family Medicine, 12, 573–576. doi:10.1370/afm.1713

Figley, C. R. (1995). Compassion fatigue: Toward a new understanding of the costs of caring. In B. H. Stamm (Ed). Secondary traumatic stress: Self-care issues for clinicians, researchers, and educators (pp. 3–28). Baltimore, MD: The Sidran Press.

Fan, Y., Duncan, N. W., de Greck, M., & Northoff, G. (2011). Is there a core neural network in empathy? An fMRI based quantitative meta-analysis. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 35, 903–911. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.10.009

Haber, S. N., & Knutson, B. (2010). The reward circuit: Linking primate anatomy and human imaging. Neuropsychopharmacology, 35, 4–26. doi:10.1038/npp.2009.129.

Ingersoll, R. M. (2012). Beginning teacher induction: What the data tell us. Phi Delta Kappan, 93, 47–51. Retrieved from http://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1239&context=gse_pubs

Klimecki, O. M., Leiberg, S., Ricard, M. & Singer, T. (2014). Differential pattern of functional brain plasticity after compassion and empathy training. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9, 873–879. doi:10.1093/scan/nst060

Kringelbach, M. L., & Berridge, K. C. (2009). Towards a functional neuroanatomy of pleasure and happiness. Trends in Cognitive Neuroscience, 13, 479–487. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2009.08.006

Lamm, C., Meltzoff, A. N., & Decety, J. (2010). How do we empathize with someone who is not like us? A functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 22, 362–376. doi:10.1162/jocn.2009.21186

Morse, G., Salyers, M. P., Rollins, A. L., Monroe-DeVita, M., & Pfahler, C. (2012). Burnout in mental health services: A review of the problem and its remediation. Administration and Policy in Mental Health, 39, 341–352.  doi:10.1007/s10488-011-0352-1

Riggs, L (2013, October 18). Why do teachers quit? The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/10/why-do-teachers-quit/280699/

Shanafelt, T. D., Hasan, O., Dyrbye, L. N., Sinsky, C., Satele, D., Sloan, J., & West, C. P. (2015). Changes in burnout and satisfaction with work-life balance in physicians and the general US working population between 2011 and 2014. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 90(12), 1600–1613. doi:10.1016/j.mayocp.2015.08.023

Strathearn, L., Fonagy, P., Amico, J., & Montague, P. R. (2009). Adult attachment predicts maternal brain and oxytocin response to infant cues. Neuropsychopharmacology, 34(13), 2655–66. doi:10.1038/npp.2009.103


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