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The Secret Cure: Empathy

Empathy is not automatic. A 30-year study on empathy in college students, for example, indicates that today’s students are less likely to express empathy for his or her fellow human than the student of yesteryear.

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Even for those who recognize the importance of empathy, it is easy to forget that empathy requires choice and action. Unlike an expression of sympathy, which often is a subconscious response that acknowledges someone else’s pain, joy or sorrow, empathy is the process of actively putting oneself in the shoes of another person.

In an interview with the Yale School of Management, Jenny Machida of Katzenberg Partners illustrates how organizational empathy with individuals (in this case, patients) leads to excellence and satisfaction: “Sometimes patients are less able to judge the excellent quality of medical care that might have been delivered, but they remember that children’s toothpaste was available in the lobby for the siblings of the patient; they remember having meals or parking taken care of or the efforts of desk attendants, patient care representatives, technicians, transporters — the people who really defined the holistic experience of being at the hospital.”

Empathy is a critical component of providing value to the patient in a health care setting. But empathy isn’t limited to the caregiver-patient relationship.

In fact, wellness in the workplace also depends on an employer’s empathy for employees. Feeling and expressing empathy for employees in a professional setting can be challenging for some. This is because business leaders tend to enact strict controls in dealing with employees or others in sensitive situations. Physicians are very aware of the unfortunate professional barriers to empathy.

Self-control and order are important to leading others, but it doesn’t have to get in the way of empathy. Too often in our work environments, leaders can get caught up in processes of improvement, but lose sight of the people who make the improvement happen.

Can empathy from leaders actually lead to employee wellness?

A recent study seems to indicate that it might. Bernie Wong, a writer at Greater Good explains the study this way:

“Feeling sick at work? Maybe you need a more empathic manager. This study followed 60 employees at an IT company over two weeks, finding that employees were less likely to report feeling sick if they had a manager with a strong inclination to take an employee’s perspective and feel what he or she was feeling… The authors suggest that managers who demonstrate empathy foster a climate of support and understanding at work, which boosts employee well-being—and, in turn, might make these workplaces more productive and cost-effective.“

While it hasn’t been scientifically proven that it is a cure for the common cold, leaders who put the action of empathy into practice are likely to foster wellness in the workplace.

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