Introduction: Empathy, often described as the comprehension of another
person’s state of mind, enables one to appreciate social environments and
anticipate others’ behaviour. In occupational therapy, the therapeutic use of
self, which is grounded in empathy, is commonly considered essential, as it
enables therapists to manage a therapeutic relationship with clients. However,
high caseloads, stressors and pressure to perform often impact empathy
levels. This study aimed to determine the empathy levels of undergraduate
occupational therapy students, as well as factors affecting empathy levels.
Method: A quantitative approach was used, with an observational, cross-sectional
study methodology, employing an electronic survey consisting of the Interpersonal
Reactivity Index (IRI) and a questionnaire developed by the researchers.
Results: In total, 112 (response rate 70.4%) students participated in the study.
Overall, the students had a satisfactory level of empathy. Of concern, however,
was the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lack of clinical fieldwork
experience, which possibly contributed to the lower empathy levels observed
among second-and third-year students.
Conclusion: From the findings, it is suggested that more attention should be
given to empathy, as it plays an integral role in practice with clients, as well as
in the training of occupational therapy students.
IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE:
The findings suggest the opportunity for interventions and support systems
that can help students manage high caseloads, stressors, and performance
pressures, while also fostering and maintaining empathy. Implementing
strategies such as stress management programs, mindfulness training, and
self-care initiatives can help mitigate the negative impact on empathy levels
and promote the development of empathetic skills in future occupational
The research study’s results have implications for the professional practice
of occupational therapy. It emphasises the need for ongoing education and
training programs that focus on empathy development and maintenance
throughout a therapist’s career.
By providing therapists with the tools, resources, and support to sustain
their empathy levels in challenging work environments, the study suggests
that the quality of care provided to clients can be enhanced, leading to better
therapeutic outcomes and overall client satisfaction.
Organisational changes within healthcare settings may be necessary to
address workload issues and create a supportive environment that nurtures
empathy among occupational therapy professionals.
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Copyright (c) 2023 South African Journal of Occupational Therapy