How to Move Beyond Empathy ‘First Aid’ at Work
I broke my collarbone a few weeks back. Trying to get a little exercise in the great outdoors, I wound up spending the afternoon in the ER—not exactly the day off I had hoped for. But navigating the medical system, from first aid to rehab and everything in between, got me thinking.
Not about medicine—about empathy.
The crisis has turned so many good leaders into empathy first responders: listening to teams, administering support, patching people up. But is there a far more critical form of empathy we’re overlooking altogether?
The Empathy Crisis
Empathy has arguably never been more important in the workplace. By some reports, COVID has contributed to a 75 percent burnout rate; in 2020, 62 percent of adults surveyed reported experiencing some degree of anxiety. More than ever, we need to put ourselves in others’ shoes and provide a kind ear and comfort when needed.
But at the same time, empathy has never been harder to get right.
Now that so many of us aren’t physically present with colleagues, connecting demands a more conscious or deliberate effort. The cues we used to pick up on spontaneously now go unseen and unaddressed. All of which requires a richer understanding than ever before of the nuances between different levels of empathy.
In short, we understand implicitly that there’s a difference between attending to a symptom and addressing an underlying cause—a difference between treatment and prevention. So why are we not talking about empathy this way?
Empathy as First Aid
So much of what we think of as empathy is, in a way, emotional first aid—responding with compassion and concern when we see a colleague struggling. Someone raises their hand and you’re there for them, even in situations that take you by surprise.
I remember, for instance, once getting a Slack message from a great team member, asking if I had a second to talk. I hopped on the phone, fearing the worst, and I could tell from his voice that he was anxious.
First-aid empathy entails putting yourself in someone else’s shoes—nimbly shifting perspectives to absorb distinct views, challenges and priorities. It’s the kind of soft skill set that’s table stakes for effective leaders today. Indeed, 90 percent of employees say they’re more likely to stay with an empathetic leader.
It turns out my colleague was leaving the company…and feeling horrible about telling me. I listened, saw how agonized he was about the decision, and also saw how important for him it was to take that leap. I reassured him, thanked him for all this commitment, and—I hope—laid the foundation for a relationship that carries far into the future.
Empathy as Primary Care
First-aid empathy is great at “stopping the bleeding.” But it’s not great for identifying issues in advance or getting at root causes. That requires a layer of proactive, holistic emotional care that’s always in play.
An example from early in my career: My first boss showed up in my office one day unexpectedly. I hadn’t asked for a meeting. I hadn’t done anything wrong (that I knew of!). But he had been watching and noticing. “You’ve got the goods,” he said, “but you’re spinning your wheels. If you really want to grow, this isn’t the place.”
It was a conversation that changed my career. But it was also one that never had to happen—the result of someone observing, caring and acting, unprompted.
Just like preventative or primary care, this level of empathy is all about monitoring, routine and consistency. Primary-care empathy means not just waiting for an employee to call you in a panic, but also observing and catching concerns before they blow up. It means showing you care when times are good, too.
Getting this right starts not with any specific technique, but with an outlook. Without seeing people as people, this kind of care and attentiveness simply isn’t possible. Then, it’s a matter of keeping your radar up. Back in the office, one way I would do this was, literally, by walking around—catching up with colleagues, alert to a comment or cue, even a facial expression, that something wasn’t right.
Taking action is equally important—and this doesn’t always mean waiting for a scheduled meeting or check-in. Whether catching someone for a quick chat in the hallway or debriefing about life after a meeting, impromptu moments of “unscheduled empathy” can be just as powerful.
Practicing Remote Empathy
In these Zoom-centric times, knowing your team well and noticing when they’re having a bad day is certainly more difficult to do. But it’s far from impossible.
In fact, I’ve found that remote work, in one way, has actually made it easier. Every time you turn on Zoom, after all, you have a glimpse into someone’s life and home—a 360-degree perspective on their human-ness you may not have had before.
In the absence of in-person interactions, emails, Slack, texts or Zoom calls can all be clues into someone’s headspace. Has a colleague signed off a little more curtly than normal, or started communicating in one-word missives? These can be just as telling as someone’s behavior at a desk.
Meanwhile, I’ve replaced impromptu connections in the hallway with “random Slacks of kindness”—quick touch-bases via Slack with coworkers about everything and nothing at all—to keep my virtual door open for conversation.
Sometimes no technology is required, at all; letting people know they’re in your thoughts is enough. The other day, I opened the door to a surprise delivery from a colleague. On the heels of a stressful week, her noticing meant the world to me.
Ultimately, building strong, multi-level empathy practices in your business isn’t about creating a touchy-feely work culture. Rather, it’s setting a stage where your team—and with it, your business—can thrive.
Done right, this approach creates a richer, more inclusive environment where employees stay longer and are more engaged. It reinforces a pattern of listening and respect that trickles down to relations with customers and partners. And, in the end, it builds companies strong and resilient enough to weather any crisis that comes their way.