Emily Blunt is an accomplished Hollywood actress who has starred in dozens of major motion pictures and was recently nominated for her sixth Golden Globes Award. I worked my way through college as a dormitory bathroom janitor, going to work at 5 a.m. every morning to mop up vomited Jagermeister, pull body hairs out of clogged showers, and scrub toilets, but mostly just clean up vomit. What is the connection between me and an award winning actress? Both Ms. Blunt and I almost quit our jobs. Fortunately (for Ms. Blunt at least) we remained at our jobs because of an empathetic leader.
Listen to “Cultivating Empathy for a Healthier Workplace” on Spreaker.
Emily Blunt revealed in a recent interview with Jimmy Kimmel, that after blowing an audition for a play, she decided to give up on acting. Dame Judi Dench, who was acting in the play Emily had auditioned for, saw her crying outside the theater and sat down with her. Judi Dench did not try to console Emily and tell her everything would not be alright. She did not offer her acting advice to help her land her next role, or share how she herself had also been rejected before. Judi Dench just sat next to a sobbing Emily Blunt on the sidewalk, and then Judi Dench began to cry as well. She sat there and said next to nothing for over an hour as Emily Blunt broke down and explained how she was giving up acting and moving home to start over.
As you probably know, Emily Blunt did not give up acting. She stuck with it and went on to co-star in another production with Judi Dench, and thanked her for being the reason she chose to remain an actress. For me, the moment I wanted to give up cleaning dormitory bathrooms was an everyday occurrence. By the end of each shift, I had rehearsed my quitting speech in my head throughout the entire morning, and was ready to give it to my boss right after I clocked out. And nearly every day, my boss Veronica -who remains to this day the best boss I ever had – would sit there as I ranted about what I had to go through that morning. On particularly fiery mornings I would toss in a few aspects about problems in my personal life or babble on about what was wrong with the American political system. And she would sit there and listen, and react, and ignore her phone as it rang, while I broke down about how upset I was. And after about fifteen minutes, I didn’t feel so bad, and I showed up the next morning at 5 a.m. ready to do it all over again. Despite only intending to work as a janitor for 3 months until I found something better, I wound up staying for over 3 years (when I finally quit to be a bartender and clean up slightly less vomit). The sole reason I stayed so long is because of those post-shift sessions I had with Veronica, who never felt bad for me, but felt bad with me.
The reason I bring up these two stories is to illustrate how empathy is essential for every occupation, from glamorous movie stars to dormitory janitors.
Companies that engage in empathy towards their workers have much higher employee retention rates and significantly higher employee output.
Whereas nearly every surveyed boss claimed that workplace empathy is essential, nearly 90% of employees claimed it was undervalued. Direct correlations have been found between empathetic leaders and workers who were more productive and engaged. The word “empathy” has increased in Google searches since 2008 around Obama’s election, and peaked during late 2020, amidst the height of the pandemic. Clearly, empathy has become something essential to day’s workforce.
But despite corporate America’s newfound attention to empathy, what we’re finding is that many people still don’t really understand what empathy is, or at least don’t know how to express it correctly. Empathy isn’t sympathy. It isn’t feeling sorry for someone, or offering them advice, or even telling them to look on the bright side.
Empathy isn’t sympathy.
Empathy is listening. It is actively listening, and reacting and not interrupting them or telling them what they should do. To be empathic, all you have to do is slow down, and take the time to focus on the speaker and engage with what they are saying. When the speaker feels comfortable enough to express how they are truly feeling without shame or judgment, then they truly feel like they are valued at their job.
This sense of value is essential to retaining employees, something that is a major issue in the workforce today. A recent study found 83% of workers would leave their organization for a more empathetic company, and 79% would even change their occupation if it meant working for a more empathetic employer. To retain happy employees, companies need to focus on providing empathy, and also monitor themselves to make sure they are actually providing it effectively and accurately. Programs like MindfulAppy can gauge employees’ emotions accurately and anonymously to make sure that a company is being empathetic in a beneficial and productive manner. Regardless if they are writing code, or mopping bathrooms, today’s workforce has made it clear that if they do not feel that their managers empathize with them and make them feel understood, they will go somewhere that does.
Studies have shown that empathetic companies have higher worker output and productivity than less empathetic counterparts. But it is not enough for a manager to try and be empathetic, they have to make sure they are actually understanding their coworkers’ perspective and supporting them. This does not mean trying to solve their problem for them – put the cape away, you’re there to just actively listen! Active listening means focusing on the speaker, avoiding interruptions, setting aside judgments, and showing interest. Slowing down and taking the time to engage with employees face-to-face will help ensure happier workers, and a better workplace.
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