With vaccination programmes underway and restrictions beginning to lift, many people are looking forward to the return of some sort of normality. But as we head back to our offices and meet at pubs, the effects of the COVID-19 won’t disappear overnight.
For many, COVID-19 has been the first "mass trauma" event in our lifetimes, with the exception of those who have lived through war, famine and other crises.
Nearly 2.9 million people have died worldwide so far as a result of coronavirus and the number is continuing to rise. The damage to the global economy, job losses, social isolation and the enduring emotional distress and fear has wreaked havoc on our lives, triggering symptoms of trauma in many people.
With the end of the current lockdown in sight, workers will have to navigate new personal and professional challenges. And with so many people struggling with the after effects of COVID-19, empathy among employers is key.
Watch: How leaders can harness empathy to lead change
“Empathy is important because most of us are on the point of burnout, with the constant stress of the last year,” explains counsellor and psychotherapist Shelley Treacher, a member of the Counselling Directory.
“Empathy is needed to help workers come back to work with care, to regain equilibrium. This will encourage the best from employees, and will help businesses thrive.”
Put simply, empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference. It’s about truly listening to someone to understand their experience as best you can, by putting yourself in their shoes.
Historically, being empathic isn’t something many employers have considered a priority. In the 1970s, the economist and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman stated that the purpose of an organisation was solely to make profit for its shareholders, with little room for social responsibility.
Increasingly, though, this view of the business world is being seen as outdated. In a recent survey of 150 CEOs, more than 80% recognised empathy as key to success. Research demonstrates that empathic leaders and workplaces reap significant benefits. Not only do employees collaborate better, empathy at work boosts morale and reduces stress, which has a positive impact on the bottom line.
And as the world grapples with the fallout of the pandemic, empathy at work is even more important. “None of us have escaped stress or trauma in the last year. We have all been affected directly or vicariously by the deaths, horrific news updates, fear of catching or passing on a deadly virus, civil unrest, a focus on appalling prejudice and abuse, and continued isolation,” Treacher says.
“This has brought up anxiety, stress, depression and hopelessness on repeat, for a year. Collectively, we've undergone several cycles of fight, flight or freeze - the body's natural response to threat.”
For workers, in particular, there has been a constant fear of job and livelihood loss. Those furloughed have wondered if they will have jobs to return to, while key workers are facing burnout as a result of long hours and overwork. Even those lucky enough to work from home in the past year have experienced loneliness and chronic stress as a result of not being able to switch off.
Watch: Top tips to boost your mental health
“This causes powerful feelings of anxiety, distress and despair,” adds Treacher. “Also, without the banter of the office and the separation from home life, people have found it particularly easy to overwork. So, we may all be exhausted, stressed, or nervous, for a long time to come.”
Although more employers are recognising the importance of empathy, many aren’t addressing the key problems associated with poor wellbeing in the workplace. It’s all well and good to schedule “catch-up” meetings to support workers, but it’s not enough to simply set aside time to talk to people.
Often, we don’t really listen to what other people are telling us. Sometimes, we are too busy with our own thoughts or worries to properly focus on someone else. And it’s easy to miss subtle non-verbal cues that can tell us a lot about a person’s emotional state. The inability to look someone in the eye, hand-wringing or slumped shoulders can speak volumes about an individual’s psychological wellbeing.
It’s also important for employers to know enough about their staff to understand their individual needs. A popular current phrase highlights that while we are all in the same storm, we aren’t in the same boat. Some people may be struggling to adjust to remote work, while others may be mourning the death of loved ones.
And simply having one empathetic manager isn’t enough, either. The entire culture of a business must be truly empathic for the benefits to be felt. Without addressing problems such as unattainable workloads and the pressure to stay productive at all times, poor mental health among workers will continue to rise.
“Workers will simply stop being able to function well. The body is designed to cope with such stress in small bursts. But, on repeat over an extended period, problems start to arise,” says Treacher. “We need employers to be empathic, to encourage and to model self-care, in order for us to thrive once again post-pandemic.”
Watch: The biggest job interview mistakes