Empathy at work is absolutely essential. We all suffer. Suffering is inevitable, and members of organisations suffer. We suffer for personal reasons (the death of a loved one, the problems of a child, a break-up) and we suffer for professional reasons (tension, tiredness, stress, incomprehension). Just as an example, the lack of good support during a colleague’s grief over the death of someone close to them costs organisations more than 75 billion a year. There are many trends in the labour market, but we must never lose sight of the fact that empathy must be worked on at work to create a more compassionate environment.
One of the ways to alleviate the suffering perceived in others is through compassion. The word compassion comes from the Latin cumpassio, and literally means “to suffer together”. For compassion to exist, at least three steps are necessary: 1) realizing that the other is suffering, 2) feeling that the other’s suffering matters to me, and 3) acting to reduce the suffering. In summary, the anatomy of compassion would be to perceive, feel and act.
How being empathetic at work benefits everyone
Nowadays, we talk little about compassion at work. It seems, in fact, that it is unprofessional to talk about compassion and empathy in the workplace. However, according to recent studies, compassion and empathy at work have a positive impact on the person who suffers, the person who accompanies, the observers, and the organisation itself. Among other evidence, it has been shown that compassion at work generates more commitment from the person who has suffered, more job satisfaction for the person who accompanies, an increased sense of relevance from observers of the act of compassion, and less intention to leave the company in general (Dutton, Workman, & Hardin, 2014; Dutton, Worline, Frost, & Lilius, 2006; Lilius et al., 2008). However, compassion tends to be personal, from one person to another. Therefore, if it is personal, and depends on the goodwill of individuals, what role do organisations play? Can organisations limit or facilitate individual compassion? Can organisations limit human compassion or become contexts that systematically facilitate compassion? How can one be empathetic in a workplace where compassion is limited?
Dutton, one of the greatest experts on compassion and empathy in the workplace, almost lost her three-year-old daughter in an accident. At the time, Dutton was working simultaneously at two universities and perceived different levels of compassion, realising how the organisational structure of each affected the level of compassion generated by her colleagues. As we saw at the beginning, there are three major steps in the process of compassion: noticing and perceiving the suffering of others, feeling that the suffering matters to us, and acting. Organisational structures can influence all three levels.
How to be empathetic at work at an organisational level
In summary, organisations influence the level of compassion generated by employees through the culture, values, practices and examples of management. Compassion at work must be an integral part of fostering a positive ethic of care in organizations. Here are some examples of how Dutton and its team are improving empathy at work:
- Organisational culture. culture explains whether it is acceptable to share emotions at work. A strict culture in this sense invites the suffering person not to share his or her suffering. In turn, it limits the opportunities for compassion from colleagues, as they either do not know about the suffering or also feel that they should not show their emotions.
- In organisations that include care, employees are more likely to show compassion to colleagues when they suffer from professional or personal issues.
- Practices. In organisations where compassionate practices exist, employees are more likely to show compassion than in others without such practices. It is necessary to practice dynamics in the company to work on empathy. For example, there are organisations that communicate all the deaths of close members, while others omit such communication. Having the company itself report the deaths makes it easier for employees to show compassion for the person who is grieving.
- The leaders. When leaders set an example in responding appropriately to the suffering of a colleague, employees are more likely to show compassion than when the leader is not a role model for empathy. For example, John Chambers, CEO of Cisco, openly asked employees to report deaths, so that he could accompany them. In this case, it is expected that other leaders in the organisation will take similar action and show more compassion.
All in all, organisations, as well as social and physical contexts, can facilitate compassion among their employees. To do this, it is necessary to promote a vision of the worker as a whole person that goes beyond the image of the person as a one-dimensional worker. At the same time, it is necessary to promote values that invite people to think about care and nurturing, to encourage practices that facilitate empathy at work, and to promote and give visibility to compassionate leaders.