The Importance of Empathy In the Workplace

May 12

By Jason Richmond, Founder, Ideal Outcomes Inc.

As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues into 2022, business leaders are challenged to strike the right balance between accelerating their return to profitability and fostering employee wellness. Earlier this year, the annual MIT Sloan Management Review found that burnout is up 9%, and 52% of employees have reported experiencing the feeling.

By understanding and practicing empathy, employers and employees are more likely to resolve conflict, build productive and efficient teams, and improve relationships organization-wide. They’re also more likely to improve relationships with customers.

In this article, we’ll explore why empathy has risen to its rightful place at the top of the business agenda and outline some practical ways you can foster it in your workplace.

Defining Empathy in the Workplace
Empathy is the ability to perceive and relate to another person's feelings, perspectives, and experiences. It’s often likened to the concept of emotional intelligence. People who have high levels of empathy – or are what we call empathetic – harness this trait to make strong connections with those around them, both in their personal lives and in the workplace.

It’s important to note that “empathy” isn’t the same as “sympathy.” Sympathy is understood as experiencing feelings of pity for someone, but it doesn’t necessarily involve having a true understanding of how they’re feeling in their situation. Empathy goes further than sympathy in that it includes the ability to picture oneself in that very situation and experience the other person’s emotions.

Empathy generally leads to more constructive engagement and outcomes than sympathy when it’s present in personal and professional relationships.

Why Is Empathy Important In the Workplace?
In the current economic and social climate, there are several reasons why empathy deserves attention. First, the country is experiencing an unprecedented skills shortage, and many businesses will continue to struggle with hiring as they move through 2022.

Second, people simply need more empathy right now.
A recent global study found that 42% of people experienced a sharp decline in mental health over the last year. Specifically, 67% of people are experiencing increases in stress, while 57% have increased anxiety, and 54% are emotionally exhausted. 53% of people are sad, 50% are irritable, 28% are having trouble concentrating, 20% are taking longer to finish tasks, 15% are having trouble thinking, and 12% are challenged to juggle their responsibilities. 

According to The Washington Post, 33% of workers today would leave their jobs if they received an offer from a more empathetic and compassionate company.

For decades, we’ve witnessed businesses that pay attention to employee experience and wellness outperform their competitors in the marketplace. During the pandemic, this showed up again, with organizations that concentrated on employee wellbeing navigating the unprecedented crisis better than those that didn’t. Today, empathy is a vital leadership competency.

Advantages of Practicing Empathy in the Workplace
Here are some benefits of cultivating more empathy in your organization:

Better Communication
When people make an effort to pay others more attention, open up about their feelings, and ask more questions, they start to understand one another a whole lot better. This paves the way for more constructive communication and collaboration, as well as stronger teamwork.

Better Customer Service
Empathy and great customer experience go hand-in-hand. Empathetic employees are simply better at anticipating their customers’ needs and understanding any concerns they raise. This puts them in a good position to solve customers’ problems fast and efficiently. Customers who encounter empathetic employees are more likely to feel satisfied with their service experience, return for repeat business, and speak highly of the brand in front of their friends and family.

Less Conflict
Empathy helps colleagues get along better and lessens the possibility of conflict in the workplace. Empathy builds greater interpersonal rapport and trust, so people are more likely to get to know each other as human beings. They’ll be more patient when there’s a problem and more inclined to support a team member who might be struggling with a personal or work problem.

How Organizations Can Encourage Empathy in the Workplace
Next, let’s outline some simple strategies to build a more empathetic workplace.

Walk in Their Shoes
Too often, senior leaders, managers, and supervisors forget the obvious: their people are human beings too. Likewise, sometimes subordinates dismiss their bosses as grumpy or unreasonably demanding. Part of practicing empathy involves putting yourself in another person’s shoes and imagining what worries or pressures they might be experiencing on a professional or personal level. But it doesn’t stop there. Choosing the right moment to start a quiet conversation with the affected person is a great way to put empathy to work and show them that you care and are there to help however you can.

Watch Out for Burnout
Empathetic workers are vigilant for signs of overwork in their colleagues and quick to step in with an offer to help. Empathetic managers are ones who actively look for signs of stress caused by unmanageable workloads, impossible deadlines, and difficult customers before they result in feelings of resentment, despair, or disengagement. If you’re a manager, try to practice empathy by setting a few minutes aside every day to check in (physically or virtually) with members of your team to understand how they’re coping with their workload and be prepared to reallocate resources where required.

Don’t Make Personal Problems Off-limits
In days gone by, it was pretty common for employees to feel they needed to put on a brave face and leave any personal issues “at the door” when they came to work. But in recent years, the lines between our personal and professional lives have become increasingly blurred – a trend that was intensified by the pandemic crisis. Everyone handles worries or personal losses differently; some people are more comfortable opening up than others. As a manager, make sure you provide a safe environment where people feel comfortable sharing if they want to.

Don’t Make Assumptions
It’s all too easy to pass judgment on others, especially when you don’t know all the facts. Imagine a situation where your supervisor has snapped at you or sent you an unusually curt email. Perhaps she’s just feeling tired or unwell. But what if she’s just lost one of the firm’s largest clients or is caring for a gravely ill child or elderly parent? No good will come from making assumptions about “what’s wrong with someone” and getting annoyed.

Celebrate Successes
Most workplaces are busy environments with too much to be done and too little time to do it. As we meet deadlines or wrap up projects, it’s usually straight onto the next big thing. We’d all do well to pause and gauge how we – and those around us – are actually feeling. If you’re a manager, practice empathy by regularly celebrating teams’ achievements or giving informal shout-outs to individuals who’ve gone above and beyond.

Be a Good Listener
Effective listening is one of the most important aspects of true empathy – but it’s also one of the most difficult to master. We’ve all arrived at work and asked a team member how they’re doing, but do we really listen to their answer? Most of us just expect to hear, “Good, thanks, and you?” Try to break that habit in your workplace. When you’re engaged in a conversation, pay close attention to what the other person is actually saying to you; don’t just focus on your response. When you really listen, you send a message to others that they matter and that you care.

Work at It
Some people are naturally blessed with high levels of empathy; others have to work at it. If you fall into the latter camp, don’t despair. It’s not possible to cultivate empathy overnight, but it’s entirely possible to train your mind to think that way and build your empathy skills. Invest time in reading and researching online resources. Also, make a point of speaking regularly to people from different backgrounds and cultures.

The Time to Practice Empathy In the Workplace is Now
The need for soft skills has never been more pressing. Employers, employees, customers, and clients will benefit from a generous dose of empathy. If you haven’t already started thinking about how to foster this vital trait within your own company, the time to do so is now.

If you’d like to talk to one of Ideal Outcomes’ culture consulting experts about building a culture of empathy, connection, equality, and inclusivity, please get in touch.