Harnessing the Hidden Power of Empathy
Effective Leadership and Greater Compassion for OEHS Professionals
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Incivility seems to be at an all-time high. A 2010 study, led by Sara Konrath, PhD, at the University of Michigan, found that college students were about 40 percent less empathetic than their counterparts thirty years prior, with the biggest drop occurring after the year 2000. In her book Mastering Civility, Christine Porath reported that 95 percent of respondents to a national survey in 2016 believed there was a “civility problem” in America. “By all accounts,” Porath continued, “incivility has only gotten worse.” Many occupational and environmental health and safety professionals treat relationships with clients as transactional, often focusing extensively on regulatory compliance and other metric-based outcomes. However, most workers do not care about injury and illness statistics and will not remember what OEHS professionals do or why. What they will remember is how an OEHS professional’s words and actions made them feel. Empathy is the tool that allows you to make connections with others. In writing this article, our intention is that you will understand the many ways empathy can benefit you and your organization.
According to the World Health Organization, a healthy workplace is one in which workers and managers collaborate to protect and promote the health, safety, and well-being of all workers and the sustainability of the workplace. But while it is often easy to recognize when a worker suffers a physical injury, illness, or impairment, how can OEHS professionals know when chemical, physical, or biological stressors in the workplace are affecting employees’ well-being? If an employee chooses not to disclose that their well-being has been negatively impacted, OEHS professionals may never know, and, as a result, may neglect part of their responsibilities to ensure a healthy workplace.
It may be as simple as engaging your empathy and asking, “Are you OK?” Then, compassion drives you to take actions leading to better outcomes for workers’ well-being.
WHAT IS EMPATHY? Empathy is one of the critical components of emotional intelligence and leadership. Practicing empathy allows you to inspire, influence, and connect with others. How you treat people plays a significant role in how they respond to your OEHS work and whether they will trust you, engage with you, want to build relationships with you, support you, and work with you.
Most people have felt a lack of empathy at some point in their lives. If you have ever been laid off by a manager who failed to show compassion, seen a doctor who seemed not to care when test results indicated a serious disease, or been ridiculed for speaking a second language with an accent, you may know how it feels to be disrespected, undervalued, or dehumanized.
Psychologists and neuroscientists broadly agree that there are several types of empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions and how they see the world, while emotional empathy refers to feelings and sensations you experience in response to the emotions of another person.
Unfortunately, people with malignant intentions and a lack of emotional empathy can more easily use their understanding of cognitive empathy to take advantage of others. Emotional empathy is critical because it allows people to create a sense of rapport with others, but the challenge for those with greater emotional empathy is that managing powerful emotions can take a toll on their well-being. For example, high emotional empathy allows a nurse working with terminally ill patients or a first responder helping disaster survivors to pick up on the distress of others.
Empathic concern is sometimes considered a third type of empathy. It is the sense felt by those who see others in trouble and want to help. This type of empathy is what makes people outstanding leaders and good team players.
Curiosity can be seen as a prerequisite to empathy. To imagine what it’s like in another person’s shoes, it helps to understand who they are by asking them how they see the world and what you share or don’t share with them. Once you gain that understanding, you can take compassionate actions. Think of empathy as the engine that drives compassion, which is, in turn, the action that results from an expression of empathy.
Frequently, OEHS professionals must visit front-line workers to learn how their job is done in order to better understand environmental stressors. Workers want to be heard, understood, respected, appreciated, and valued and to have their needs met. If they feel that they are being told how to do their jobs or chastised about poor work practices, they are less likely to share information about their work environments and their ideas for reducing exposures.
Experiential empathy is like getting into the same canoe with another person for a shared journey. For example, in 2009, Missouri State University held a class for students working toward certification as orientation and mobility specialists and teachers of blind and visually impaired people. Sighted students were required to complete 160 hours navigating the city of Lawrence, Kansas, while blindfolded and using a cane as an aid. Classes such as these can promote empathy for blind and visually impaired people and discussions about improving accessibility.
OEHS professionals may attempt similar approaches, like doing tasks performed by workers or by donning personal protective equipment that must be used on the job. Of course, you should only try this if you’ve had proper orientation and training and if it has been determined safe to do so. This immersion approach to empathy leads to a better understanding of others, even if you have different viewpoints or conflicting interests.
With all its benefits, empathy can sometimes be a poor guide for decision-making when judgment becomes clouded by bias. Moreover, people with high emotional empathy who work frequently with people in distress may experience a constant flood of stressful emotions that, if not managed, may lead to burnout and reduce their ability to effectively do their jobs.
WHY EMPATHY MATTERS Practicing empathy can make OEHS professionals better communicators. Every time you deliver a message, you need to think strategically and empathetically about your audience and what matters to them. How does this information affect them and why should they care? What do you want them to do?
Different people respond to information in different ways. When OEHS professionals use fewer scientific terms and less technical jargon, non-professionals are more likely to understand them. In addition, when presenting to executives, it helps to be concise and convey why they need to know the information being given to them, how it will affect them, what is expected from them, and what is the benefit of action or risk of inaction.
So, when you must deliver news that an employee has been exposed to airborne chemicals in excess of established limits, or tell a middle manager that they need to support employees through engineering or administrative controls, you should imagine how you would feel in the other person’s place. Empathy in these situations will go a long way in defining your reputation either as a compassionate professional or a clumsy, unfeeling jerk.
Digital Extra: The Empathy Cheat Sheet
Authors Tim Paz and Amy McCae have created an empathy cheat sheet (PDF) for OEHS professionals, influenced by similar tools for medical professionals, that can be used as a guide in increasing your empathy skills.
The experiences of OEHS professionals suggest that empathy plays a major role in making OEHS a meaningful, satisfying career and humanizing people in the workplace. Shamini Samuel, CSP, CIH, the interim director of Central Health and Wellness for Suncor Energy Services, discussed her workplace’s initiative to build a culture of trust. Suncor employees participated in the Trust Index Employee Survey, a tool for assessing workplace culture that was developed by the company Great Place to Work and focuses on the building blocks of trust—credibility, respect, fairness, pride, and camaraderie. The survey outcomes were sent to all Suncor employees, with each team, department, and manager receiving a Team Trust Index or Manager Index score.
Samuel stated that the survey results helped identify areas where she needed to improve her leadership skills. She described Suncor’s use of the survey to solicit employee feedback as “an incredible opportunity for me to not only become a better EHS leader, but more importantly a better human being.”
“One of my key takeaways is that trust in the workplace is built when we become better at empathizing with those in our circle of influence,” Samuel continued. “When we can empathize, we become better coaches, which in turn helps us make connections with our people, motivate them to do their best, help them discover their own solutions, and grow.”
EMPATHETIC LEADERSHIP Good leaders know how to inspire and motivate others to develop their full potentials. As Shamini Samuel learned, the people you are leading must trust and believe in you. Honesty, effective communication, accountability, good decision-making, and creativity are common among effective leaders. In addition to these “active” traits, others are more subtle.
Have you ever walked into a room in a bad mood and been uplifted by the positivity you felt from the people inside? Or is there someone in your life who leaves you feeling drained every time you’re with them? This phenomenon, which people often refer to as the “energy” of a room or person, is called emotional contagion. In simple terms, emotional contagion means that you unconsciously mimic another person’s non-verbal cues and reflect their emotions. This phenomenon is possibly related to the activity of mirror neurons—brain cells that react both when you perform an action as well as when you observe someone else performing it.
The traits below relate to the energy that you bring to a room. They help you inspire emotions in others that support trust, compassion, curiosity, psychological safety, insight, innovation, and more. You don’t have to embody them all—explore them to see how they feel and practice one or two that come naturally.
Sensitivity. This ability to pick up on the emotions you feel within yourself, from the person you are talking to, or from a group of people is an aspect of emotional intelligence and self-awareness.
Solidity. Imagine being a mountain: you are grounded and present as well as open and receptive. This aspect will influence how people respond to you.
Voice. The words you choose, the tone of your voice, your pauses, and your rhythm will impact how receptive people are to your vision and leadership.
Authenticity. Find your own style by identifying when you feel the most natural and be the person you are in that moment. You must be authentic for people to trust you.
Disclosure. Be willing to be vulnerable and to share personal stories. A “hero’s journey” makes you more relatable.
Non-identification. What other people choose to do is not always because of you. Not everyone will follow your lead, so don’t take it personally.
Curiosity. Ask questions, listen intentionally, and explore ideas, values, and experiences in an open-minded and genuine way. When you are receptive, it opens space for others to be as well.
Celebration of success. Recognize, acknowledge, and revel in small successes. This encourages others to have supportive mindsets and perceptions.
HOW TO CULTIVATE EMPATHY You cannot empathize with the perspective of another if you have preconceived ideas about what the other person is thinking or feeling. Embrace not knowing everything about a person, and let curiosity about their experiences kickstart your empathy.
Use your body language to show others that you’re interested in what they think and say. When interacting with others, look them in the eye. Turn your body toward the other person when greeting them. Synchronize your body language and your tone of voice to inspire trust and approachability. Respect others’ personal space.
Embrace others’ differences, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Everyone brings something unique and valuable to the table, and increasing kindness toward others means increasing empathy. You can practice kindness through developing mental habits—if you regularly make an effort to think of and treat others kindly, kindness will become your frame of mind.
All these practices are related to how you interact with people, but how you communicate with and listen to them matters as well. A mindful and empathetic conversation has three parts: active listening, looping, and dipping.
“Active listening” means being fully present in a conversation and giving others your attention moment by moment. Often, you are distracted from conversations by your thoughts or your phone. Instead, practice purposefully paying attention to others. Active listening is also empathetic, meaning that you listen without judgment.
“Looping” is validating others’ experiences. You don’t have to agree with them, but if you validate what they are experiencing, they will be much more receptive to listening to you. Allow other people to speak and then repeat to them what you believe them to have said until the other person feels understood. Listen for the other person’s feelings and say to them, “What I hear that you feel is...” followed by your understanding of their concern.
“Dipping” is checking in with yourself. Notice your breathing and your thoughts. Recognize any emotions and sensations that you feel. Check in with your responses to guide what you need to say or do as well as to help you stay present.
A CALL TO ACTION OEHS professionals have been working to boost empathy in the field for some time and have created tools for this purpose. In a 2011 article for EHS Today, titled “Transformational Leadership: The Key to World-Class Safety,” Richard D. Fulwiler, ScD, CIH, FAIHA, created a set of transformational leadership assessment criteria targeted toward organizational leaders. Fulwiler’s criteria include attributes such as listening, communication, caring, collegiality, and engaging. “Capturing the hearts and minds of workers is the essential element in maximizing/optimizing the contributions of the workers,” Fulwiler writes.
Moreover, there has never been a more opportune time than now to practice empathy and compassion for others. Public concern about risks to worker health and well-being has been front and center the past two years, which is perhaps a silver lining to the dark cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic. As many employees return to the workplace, empathy will play a huge role in helping them adapt. People will have varying risk tolerances and subsequent levels of anxiety. OEHS professionals and supervisors will have to practice empathy by listening to employees and nonjudgmentally supporting them.
While OEHS professionals serve dual roles in promoting worker well-being and employing sound science to protect employees from physical, chemical, and biological stressors, future leaders of the profession may need to better define and measure worker well-being and teach new practitioners about empathy early in their careers. It doesn’t take a licensed psychologist to recognize that a worker who is not bringing their best self to the job is more likely to perform with less focus and a greater risk of impaired health or injury.
“Workers are not simple cogs in a wheel,” Zina Sutch and Patrick Malone write in Leading with Love and Laughter: Letting Go and Getting Real at Work. “They are thinking and feeling human beings who have needs far beyond their descriptions.” OEHS professionals need to switch on their empathic brains, seek experiential adventures, and be curious. Together, we can make a difference by tapping into our innate capacity to be empathetic and take compassionate action to help others in need, and thus humanizing workplaces across the globe. That is the power of empathy.
TIM PAZ, CIH, is the National Industrial Hygiene Program manager at the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington, D.C.
AMY MCCAE supports leaders to reduce stress and find more time for the things they love. For more information, visit amymccae.com or mindfulnessleadercoach.com.
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CASE STUDY: Empathy in Action
By Tim Paz
About twelve years ago, I investigated an indoor air quality concern related to secondhand environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) in a healthcare environment. Four pharmacists shared a small office with no windows and poor air movement. The pharmacists’ daily experience included the odor of ETS and symptoms such as eye and nose irritation and coughing. They also noticed the odor of tobacco smoke on their clothing and personal effects when they left for home. The source of the indoor air contaminants was tied to a nearby smoking area that was adjacent to an air intake for the building’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system.
  Throughout this investigation, I often wondered how I would feel if I had to sit in this smoke-filled environment for a full work shift every day. This empathic perspective motivated me to work harder on the pharmacists’ behalf. After working on this issue for a month, one of the pharmacists thanked me for my persistence in finding a resolution. “All we really wanted was to know that someone in the organization truly cared about us,” she confided to me. The feelings she shared resonated with me, and I’ve never forgotten the positive experience.
Berrett-Koehler Publishers: Leading with Love and Laughter: Letting Go and Getting Real at Work (2021).
EHS Today: “Transformational Leadership, The Key to World-Class Safety” (June 2011).
Grand Central Publishing: Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace (2016).
Great Place to Work: “Trust Model.”
HarperOne: Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace) (2014).
Lawrence Journal-World: “Blindfolds Teach Empathy for Visually Impaired” (June 2009).
Mindful Schools of California: “Mindful Educator Essentials: Mindful Teaching” (online course, November 2016).
Page Two: The Empathy Edge: Harnessing the Value of Compassion as an Engine for Success (2019).
Perigree: Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It (2014).
Personality and Social Psychology Review: “Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis” (August 2010).
Weber Shandwick: “Civility in America 2016” (January 2016).