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How has COVID-19 affected empathy at work?

Empathy has become a bit of a buzzword for businesses, and it’s often framed as a revolutionary concept for successful leadership. But empathy is not something you can sell – and it’s certainly not a tick box.

Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings and emotions of others. And, in a time where uncertainty and change is constant, empathy has become more important than ever, especially in our workplaces.  

Most of us have been working from our homes. We’re familiar with our clients' pets and our co-workers' kitchens. We have become increasingly integrated into each other's lives. Working from home can bring difficulties such as increased distraction, poor time management, lack of breaks, decreased social interaction and the inability to switch off. For some, the pandemic has also resulted in loss, financial difficulty, mental health issues, physical health problems or heartbreak.  

Being more empathetic in our work and behaviour has never been so important, and will continue as we navigate ourselves into another new way of working now lockdown lockout is on the horizon.  

Deep listening and opening up can boost empathy 

Empathy at work may not be comfortable for everyone. It can make us feel vulnerable. Humanising your communications and showing genuine care is what makes the difference in connecting with our colleagues. Simple techniques like listening, being more present in conversations, making eye contact and taking note of the other person's body language can all help with engagement. It creates a safe and open space where you’re able to check in on co-workers. Creating psychological safety also comes from our own ability to open up and help create a trusting foundation and empathetic bonds.  

The pandemic has proved this is not just a leadership skill, but a skill for all. I like to remember that we can all support each other and show kindness no matter what role you are in.  

Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of: ‘you’re not alone.

Brene Brown
University of Houston

Practise self-empathy The way we empathise with one another is one thing, but the pandemic has also identified a growing need for self-empathy. Work routines have changed, and prolonged isolation can negatively impact our wellbeing and increase feelings of anxiety and stress.  

Self-care is a term you might be familiar with, but practicing it can be difficult. You might not feel like you have the time, or perhaps you struggle to understand what self-care means for you. But self-care is worth it. It’s a way of practising empathy on yourself, so you’ll be better able to practise it on others. 

If you’re struggling with how to care for yourself, try asking yourself: what really makes me feel good? It could be things like these: 

  • A morning walk
  • A five-minute chat with your colleagues before the day starts
  • An afternoon nap
  • A hot shower or bath after work
  • Turning off your phone for an hour

Above all, be kind to yourself. If you’re able to empathise with yourself, you’re more likely to be able to empathise with others.  

Learn to make connections in new ways 

We’re all learning quickly. Right now, we’re connecting with each other in ways we have never done before. Internal collaboration is proving crucial for survival.  

Our co-workers may be taking on new roles and responsibilities, different working hours, or even new living circumstances. A little bit of empathy with each other will help us to adapt and progress.  

At Six we have been been trying new ways to connect, including fitness sessions, lunchtime yoga, social drop-ins and a focus on helping each other with mental and fitness wellbeing. But above all else, encouraging respect and empathy to each other's time.  

Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.


Don’t lose balance  

Through all of this, we can’t forget our own needs. We have access to global webinars that have moved online (often for free), so it’s a chance to enhance our knowledge and skills and meet new people.  

While social connection is beneficial and has a positive impact on our wellbeing, it’s also important to recognise your limits and avoid burnout. Keeping connected and engaging with your colleagues can sometimes leave you feeling fatigued, so make sure you maintain a balance. Know your limits – and understand that empathy isn’t something you can learn overnight. 

Bringing empathy into our culture 

Our empathy skills will no doubt continuously adapt at work as we navigate our way out of the COVID-19 pandemic. What is clear is the need to adopt a ‘culture of courage’ that can help us deliver a sense of optimism and togetherness. We can drive that with compassionate and empathetic leadership.  

At Six, we’ve made Bristol Mind our Charity of the Year. We’re so excited to partner with them so we can help to support anyone in our city (and further afield) who might be struggling with their mental health, as well as anyone at Six who may need help.  

With this partnership, we hope to empower ourselves by learning more about mental health. We’ll be holding several fundraisers this year, so keep an eye on our socials to find out how you can get involved and support Bristol Mind.  

And if you take only one thing away from this blog post, this quote from Maya Angelou really says it all: 

I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Maya Angelou


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