Empathy is a hot topic in the workplace, and while it should be, there are problems with requiring workers to be more empathic without appropriate support.
Study after study finds that workers who display empathy are rated as more effective, more approachable, and more professional than their less engaged colleagues. Empathic managers are consistently shown to develop better communication and stronger team cohesion, while empathic health care professionals have higher patient satisfaction scores.
However, empathic burnout is rampant in many high-empathy-demand occupations. For instance, the constant empathy demands in health care are leading to high absenteeism, high turnover, widespread depression, and even a silent epidemic of suicides among doctors and nurses. Empathy in the workplace is essential, but it is work, and it needs to be taken seriously so that empathic burnout does not occur.
In my research on empathy, I found that there isn’t a lot of awareness of the serious burnout potential of empathy work. There also isn’t a step-by-step understanding of the different aspects of empathy, the kinds of empathy demands workers face, or the ways that a healthy workplace culture can protect workers from overwhelm and burnout.
In my work, I help people develop focused skills and a strong understanding of the different aspects of empathy so that their empathy can be effective, intentional, and most important, healthy and sustainable throughout their careers and their lives.
1) Increase Emotional Vocabulary
Empathy is first and foremost an emotional skill, and one of the most important — and simple — ways to develop better emotional skills is to increase the emotional vocabulary in the workplace. When people have a larger and more nuanced emotional vocabulary, they can identify and respond more effectively to their own emotions and the emotions of others. Vocabulary matters, and workers who share a large emotional vocabulary can develop better empathic accuracy and stronger emotion regulation skills.
2) Create Repair Stations for Empathy Workers
Skilled empathy is the art of responding effectively to the emotions and needs of others. In many workplaces, empathy work may be focused on problems and conflicts, and this can be tiring. It is very helpful to create what sociologists call “repair stations,” where people can talk in private about the often-difficult empathy work they do. This small shift can make a huge difference, and it can create a supportive empathic environment within the workplace.
3) Support and Encourage Empathy Breaks
In high-empathy or high-intensity workplaces, some workers are performing strenuous empathy work all day long, with no breaks and little to no awareness that they are doing heavy empathic labor. Managers and colleagues can build short no-contact and no-expectation breaks into each day, where high-empathy workers can be alone, go for a walk, or simply zone out. Regular rest is a vital part of avoiding burnout.
Empathy is an essential ability and a vital job skill, but it is work. If you and your colleagues can treat empathy as work and create intelligent support structures for your empathy workers, you can build an empathic environment that is as healthy (and protective) for each worker as it is for your bottom line.