We asked Marius Deckers, Research Associate, University of Duisburg-Essen, Institute of Psychology

Concept for caregiver workload relief: "Empathy is a fundamental part of being human"


Caregivers encounter many different emotions in their jobs. Patients are in pain, have questions about their own mortality or they pass away. The empathy-based relief concept empCARE was founded to better handle these emotional experiences. With the help of training courses, caregivers are taught to learn how to prevent an empathic emotional overreaction.

Image: Marius Deckers; Copyright: .fotomenken

Marius Deckers; © .fotomenken

The "Caring for the Caregiver: Developing and Creating an Empathy-Based Relief Concept in Caregiving" (empCARE) project is funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) for 42 months. REHACARE.com asked Marius Deckers about the psychological stress caregivers are faced with and the reasons behind it.

Mr. Deckers, the empCARE project includes four project partners. Who is responsible for what?

Marius Deckers: The project is primarily managed by the University of Duisburg-Essen. Our other three project partners are located at various other sites. This includes the University Hospitals of Cologne and Bonn as well as an ambulatory care service called "Die Mobile" (English: Mobile Services). Our University is in charge of the scientific research and theoretical framework of the project. Both of the University Hospitals conduct practical training for caregivers. The associates of the "Die Mobile" care services also participate during the sessions. Altogether, we are currently training approximately 400 caregivers at the Cologne and Bonn locations. We regularly offer block schedules and coaching sessions for up to 18 participants that take place over two days.

The project aims to reduce the psychological stress of caregivers. What types of stressors are they confronted with?

Deckers: We want to show caregivers a different way to deal with empathy. We have developed a theory here at the University of Duisburg-Essen that states that the proper use of empathy towards patients in need of care is key.

Patients face serious illnesses for instance and are close to death, for example. This also presents a challenge for caregivers. Patients ask questions like, "Do you think I will get out of here alive?". This question is emotionally taxing for the caregivers. People subsequently tend to issue a hyper-empathic response and say things like, "Chin up, you will be fine." These gestures are of a positive nature and well-intended, but they don’t help the patients which is obvious to the caregivers and leaves them with an uneasy feeling. Yet they still want to help, which spurs the empathetic response. Since they know their statements won’t change the actual situation, this occupational group experiences psychological stress in the long run. We want to teach caregivers alterative empathetic responses, so the communication between them and the patients can go beyond the patient's current situation. Communication is meant to be efficient and effective to where associates are able to assist people in need of care and avoid hyper-empathic responses and not cause chronic psychological stress on the part of the nursing staff.

Image: Carer holds the hand of a patient; Copyright: panthermedia.net/michaeljung

People subsequently tend to issue a hyper-empathic response. With this project caregiver learn to deal with it; © panthermedia.net/michaeljung

What are the reasons for psychological stress?

Deckers: Empathy is a fundamental part of being human; we are able to put ourselves into somebody else's shoes, identify their emotions and sympathize with them. If someone doesn't feel good, these emotions might transfer onto us and we want to get rid of these negative feelings. That’s why we prefer to answer with set phrases like, "Chin up" to emotionally detach from the situation. Caregivers want to help these patients, but they also implicitly know they are not really able to with these types of statements. Feeling empathy is not a bad thing, but the right use of empathy for professional caregivers is key to avoid psychological stress. Caregivers also talk with relatives who feel bad. Caregivers also take this emotional stress home with them so to speak. We presume that this is the underlying reason for the frequent cases of burnout and depression in this profession.

What does inclusion mean to you?

Deckers: During my civil service tenure in an inclusive Kindergarten, the groups included between five and six children with learning disabilities (so-called cognitive disabilities). The subject of inclusion also came up in this setting. Back then, the goal was for people with cognitive disabilities to be able to enter any profession they would like within the scope of their capabilities. For me, inclusion is successful when people with physical or cognitive disabilities are permitted to pursue any profession they choose. And to do so without encountering prejudices or legitimation. I would like to see that it will soon be commonplace for people with disabilities to be able to work alongside able-bodied persons. I believe this is a worthwhile goal.

More information (only in German) about the project at: www.empcare.de
Image:: Lorraine Dindas; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Frommann

This interview was conducted by Lorraine Dindas and translated from German by Elena O'Meara.