Powered by Purpose Speaker, Alysa Mozak, who is an educator and consultant with Blossoming Pathways, LLC, provides insight on why empathy and compassion make a difference in the workplace in this guest blog. 

Empathy is more than an emotion—it’s a skill. Being empathetic means you are able to feel someone else’s emotions and are open making that connection. Many people don’t realize they are capable of actively practicing empathy and that it helps to build better, stronger relationships. Empathy should be a core workplace value because of its function in driving productivity, fostering innovation, and cultivating and maintaining connections. All of these factors combined actually help elevate employee retention and increases profit. If employees are more connected to the people they work with and the purpose of their organization or company, they care more about being a part of the larger effort.

In fact, the workforce places high value on empathy. A 2018 Business Solver survey showed that:

  • 90% of all employees, regardless of age, believe in empathy in the workplace.
  • 1 in 3 employees would leave their job if empathy was not present.
  • 40% of employees experience burnout.
Empathy vs. Sympathy

Humans are inherently wired for empathy, with neurotransmitters in several parts of our brains that employ empathetic responses. Being empathetic does not require you to have experienced the same thing someone else has; it involves being present, open to listening, and letting someone express their feelings or needs without judgement. Sometimes, it’s about just being with a person without saying anything at all.

Here’s a great video that combines a presentation given by Brené Brown with animation to illustrate the difference between empathy and sympathy. In the video, Brown says “empathy fuels connection; sympathy drives disconnection.” She explains that empathy goes deeper than sympathy because you are feeling with someone rather than feeling for someone.

Brown describes the “At Least” framework most of us have employed at some point in response to someone sharing a painful experience with us. In an effort to “help,” we try to find the silver lining in some less-than-positive news. For example, imagine a close friend has just shared that they lost their job. In an effort to make them feel a little better, your response is, “at least you have a lot of experience; you’ll find another job soon!” This is an example of a sympathetic response, but not empathetic one. You were listening, but also trying to fix their feelings instead of feeling the disappointment with them. Brown says showing empathy rarely starts with “at least.”

It’s not that we don’t care, it can just be easier—and more comfortable for us—to avoid feeling what someone else is feeling. “Responses don’t make things better, connection does,” Brown says. In some cases, letting someone know that you’re not sure what to say, but you’re there for them, is the most empathetic response.

Empathy and Compassion

Compassion is empathy in action. Compassion comes from a Latin word meaning “to suffer with.” Compassion involves feeling the pain of others and doing your best to alleviate it, which also requires you to stay present.

Thupten Jinpa, the founder of the Compassion Institute, defined the four states of compassion:

  • Being aware of people who are suffering
  • Being emotionally moved by suffering
  • Wishing to see the relief of suffering
  • Readiness and responsiveness to help relieve that person from their suffering
Compassion in the workplace

Training on compassion can help build new coping strategies to strengthen resilience, foster prosocial behavior and—in the end—helps alleviate workplace burnout. While we pull from every region of our brains when employing empathetic responses, we each have more dominant areas. There are several assessments to help identify the part of your brain in which your empathy comes from, allowing you to better understand the areas where you may need more practice.

Some examples of actions employers can take to practice compassion in the workplace include, but are not limited to:

  • Emphasizing team building through employee spotlights, activities and retreats
  • Encouraging employee input for strategic decisions and honoring preferences
  • Making time to talk about work and things outside of work
  • Being transparent about expectations
  • Practice active listening and engagement
  • Problem solving together
  • Encouraging self-care over productivity
  • Integrating sick leave policies/benefits
  • Incorporating flexible work hours
  • Practicing patience

The three keys to developing empathy as a leader are:

  1. Employing listening skills (listen more than you talk),
  2. Avoiding judgement and seeking to find solutions to concerns or issues, and
  3. Being self-aware of your feelings without letting those feeling influence behavior.

We don’t instantly have empathy. As a skill, we are always practicing and developing a stronger sense of empathy as we learn more about it and grow as a leader.

Alysa Mozak, MS, is an educator and consultant with Blossoming Pathways, LLC. She provides customized policy audits and professional trainings and workshops for businesses and organization in Central Iowa. Watch her Powered by Purpose Speaker Series presentation on our Speakers page or by clicking here

Empathy PbP Speaker


TAGS: Thriving Workforce, Powered by Purpose

Erin Drinnin

About The Author: Erin Drinnin

Erin Drinnin is United Way's Community Impact Officer for Health.