Is empathy a case manager’s greatest weakness?

While empathy is usually considered a human strength, when it comes to case managers in the employment services sector, it could actually be their greatest weakness – and a great source of staff attrition for providers.

A large proportion (71 per cent) of case managers consider empathy their greatest strength. In being able to understand job seekers, often they feel they are well placed to help them come to terms with their situation and move them forward towards a job.

Esher House has trained up over 1000 case managers now, and in assessing their top five strengths, has discovered that fairness, honesty and kindness are highly rated. It’s clear that the type of people that are attracted to case management are very emotive people.

The problem is, their empathy overplayed can become their greatest weakness.

The extremely high consultant burnout rate in the sector (an annual average of 33.2% over the 12 years between 2004 and 2016, according to NESA) indicates empathy is taking a real toll on case managers. (Compare that to a 6% annual turnover for coal mining workers).

Consultant burn-out

Science has shown that as a result of ‘mirror neurones’ in the brain, consultants will actually experience transference of emotion and behaviour from job seekers, with sympathy leading to learned helplessness and even anti-social behaviour. Hence the consultant churn crisis.

Essentially, they are burning out. While they love people and they want to help people, all the positivity is being beaten out of them by the work in the sector. They end up needing their own mental health support, and coping strategies in how to be a good coach.

Using compassion

Esher House conducts strengths-based training workshops with teams of case managers so they can deliver them to job seekers. Focusing on self-efficacy, resilience and well-being, they have a proven impact on the end job seeker, particularly the long-term unemployed.

However they also have value for case managers. Staff turnover among case managers who completed the resilience training is only 12.7%, indicating they look after their own self-care.

Esher House’s research also indicates that consultants who use compassion – rather than empathy – can better survive in their roles. Showing compassion means feeling for someone – not with someone. It’s something that requires emotional self-control in the case manager.