The Value of Empathy in the Workplace

I’m amazed how many years it took me to become aware of it. Even as a leader, I didn’t recognize the nature and significance of the difficulties in the daily lives of other people at work. Fifteen years into my working career and I think I’m finally starting to figure out what empathy is and why it matters.

I now work for a Christian organization with fewer than a thousand employees. Because we are a distinctively Christian community, our Human Resources department, when requested, shares prayer needs with all the employees through email. I’m amazed because nearly every week we are notified that someone’s family member is seriously ill or dying. These are major life events that sap people’s creative energies, distract from their work, and could even give them a sense of hopelessness.

Even more significantly, I am becoming increasingly aware as I get older of the profound struggles in the lives of many co-workers. When I was younger I assumed everything was alright unless someone told me otherwise. However, as I work in a community of Christians, I find out that apart from the big events that get broadcast through e-mail, there are dozens more “little” crises in people’s lives. For the most part, I was oblivious to these concerns when I worked outside of Christian higher education.

Some people are struggling with anxiety, some with the effects of ongoing cancer treatment, some with children that seem intent on getting into trouble at school. That stress sends ripples through a person’s whole life, including their work. There are a million of needs and struggles. If we’re not careful, we’ll miss them and never take the opportunity to be an encouragement to the people around us.

In organizations with a mission built upon Christian principles, it is easier (sometimes) to stop and pray and to use Scripture to encourage one another. It is also more likely, based on my experience, for people to be willing to discuss their struggles with others at work. However, looking back to the years that I worked in secular environments, I can think of a number of opportunities that I missed to be a better leader and a better friend. In reality, taking a few steps to be more empathetic would have made a big difference in my ability to exemplify the gospel to my coworkers.

Be Aware of the Hurting

The most significant step in becoming a better coworker is to simply be aware of the struggles in people’s lives. This starts by recognizing the humanity of the people that we work with.

Even theologians with a solid understanding of the doctrine of humanity need to be intentional to see the uniqueness of each person at work. My coworker isn’t just a line item on my budget with a productivity quota, she is a human with a family, medical needs, and hopes for the future. If I focus on whether she’s accomplished the proper number of tasks on the to-do list instead of whether she’s flourishing as a human, I’ve missed the mark as a leader.

There were many instances I can recall when I was very critical of peers who didn’t make deadlines or weren’t as successful at their work. I had a critical spirit that exalted myself because I stayed at work late or achieved a better result. Looking back, based on conversations I had at the time, many of those people were struggling with concerns at home with their families. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to do well at their work, it was simply that their work wasn’t as important as the other issues they were wrestling with.

I would have been more Christ-like had I been consistently concerned for their wellbeing as a person. Being effective at work is important, but it isn’t the only thing. It also may have helped people to be more productive had they known that others at work cared and were concerned about more than just the bottom line.

Be Compassionate Toward the Hurting

Simply recognizing that the world around is hurting is insufficient. It’s roughly the equivalent of telling the hungry, poorly clothed person and telling them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled.” (James 2:16).

 US Government work used by CC License: http://ow.ly/bJWK309wYOv

US Government work used by CC License: http://ow.ly/bJWK309wYOv

In the workplace, most often the problem will not be a lack of food or clothing. The contemporary equivalent of brushing off physical needs is to address someone’s medical condition or concerns for their family by saying, “I’m sorry about that. Do you think you can get this report done on time?”

Obviously, sometimes there is work that just needs to get done. However, it may be that sharing another person’s assignment or covering a shift for them is exactly the sort of relief they need. Going beyond acknowledgment that someone has a problem and seeking to relieve it is a step in the right direction. Even if they don’t accept the offer, the willingness to help means more than simply offering your “thoughts and prayers” and “oohing” at the right moments in conversation.

Be Concerned with the Flourishing of Others

There are many people more aware and compassionate that I am. Many of them are not Christians. This is something that I’ve come to expect because common grace is real and, frankly, I’m naturally a selfish person.

However, as a Christian, I bring a vision of holistic flourishing to my workplace that others will lack. If I can beat down my introversion and task-oriented, deadline-focused nature, I can actually apply the knowledge of the good news about a savior who came to redeem and restore all of creation for the good of humankind and for his own glory. There’s a deeper message of hope and wellbeing in the gospel that only Christians can share.

We know the end of the story. We know that creation is groaning with birth pangs in anticipation of being set free from the bondage of sin and decay. (cf. Rom 8:18-23) We have a hope that should enliven us and cause us to desire to meet the needs of those we work in their daily struggles, pointing them toward redemption in Christ.

Conclusion

 Our workplaces are awash with a flood of private distress. As we do our work, we can serve others by doing our jobs excellently. We can also serve those we work with by demonstrating empathy for their concerns. Christians ought to pursue the good of people, not simply the metric that bolsters the bottom line.

As we move from simply recognizing the needs of others to offering to provide help, we open up opportunities for demonstrating what redemption looks like. Many people are carrying the weight of heavy burdens today. They need to know what redemption looks like more than they need a lesson in productivity. Christians can provide that, which is a key part of how we live out our faith through our work.