When Stephen Trzeciak was in medical school, he was taught that caring too much for patients — having too much compassion — would lead to burnout. Today, he’s chief of medicine at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University in New Jersey. And since his time in med school he’s learned an important truth: Compassion is not draining. Done right, it can protect a doctor’s health.
“I became convinced that the most pressing problem of our time … was that people were, as I looked around, miserable. And it affected how they were treating patients,” he said. Trzeciak recently spoke at a webinar from the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Health Care. The Boston-based group, founded by a cancer patient in 1994, provides compassion-centered education, training and support to health care professionals in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Trzeciak says his first-hand experience and a stack of scientific research have shown him the benefits of compassion in a health care setting. Anyone who has ever experienced compassion as a patient knows what a difference it can make, especially if the medical situation is a tough one.
“Serving other people actually has beneficial effects for yourself,” Trzeciak said. “For your mental health, but also your physical health and longevity, as well as emotional health, happiness, well-being and even your professional success.”
It’s not just good advice for doctors — it’s good advice for anyone.
He put his findings into two recent books, both coauthored with Dr. Anthony Mazzarelli, Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference (2019) and Wonder Drug: Seven Scientifically Proven Ways That Serving Others Is the Best Medicine for Yourself (2022). “The last five years have been the most fulfilling of my entire career,” he said. “I love what we're working on.”
Others are also catching on to the idea that compassion in health care leads to better outcomes for both patients and providers. In fact, the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Health Care was founded on the very idea.
Why does compassion lead to better resilience for health care providers? Trzeciak’s hypothesis is that when you have compassion for patients – as well as for their families and your colleagues – those relationships makes the work fulfilling. That fundamental truth applies to anyone in any work role: If you don’t have the fulfilling part, he says, all you have is a super stressful job.
The answer to compassion fatigue
You may have heard the phrase “compassion fatigue,” the idea that it’s possible for someone in a caregiving profession to care too much, burn out on compassion and stop caring. But Trzeciak would say, that’s not quite what’s going on, plus these feelings can be avoided.
“Empathy plus action equals compassion,” he says. “What the neuroscience supports is that empathy hurts but compassion heals.”
When you witness suffering, an empathetic person will feel pain.
“It actually activates the pain center of your brain,” he said. “So there’s actual neuroscience data behind the saying, ‘I feel your pain.’”
However, when you focus on helping someone alleviate their suffering, it activates the brain’s reward center. This means “compassion fatigue” isn’t the issue. Take action to avoid fatigue or burnout, Trzeciak said.
Compassionomics for better self-care
Oftentimes, we tell stressed out people to do more self care and that means a narrowly defined list of solo and detached activities: Go for a walk by yourself. Read a book. Meditate. Get away. Take a bath. But what if time alone focusing on yourself is not a lasting solution?
“We find solace in family, and friends, and in connecting and relationships – not in detaching and going deeper into ourselves,” Trzeciak said. And the good news is that the skills of compassion can be strengthened with practice.
Think of your time and attention as a light, he suggests. Then, instead of shining the light on yourself, “turn it around and shine it on other people.”
But even the most fervent student of compassion sometimes can feel overwhelmed by difficult personal situations and the world’s vast, confounding troubles. Even then, keep trying and keep taking action to help other people who are hurting, Trzeciak said.
“My favorite definition of hope,” he said, “is a conviction that despair will never have the last word.”