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Psychological needs and mental well-being - Empathy in the workplace

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Learning Outcomes

Objectives and goalsClick to read  

At the end of this module you will be able to:

Define empathy and distinguish between different types of empathy
Discuss employee empathy and explain the benefits of empathy in the workplace
Identify ways to improve empathy in the workplace
Determine the characteristics of empathic leadership and empathic leaders

Empathy in the workplace

Defining EmpathyClick to read  

The word empathy comes from the Greek word empatheia (passion), meaning to be with a person’s feelings, passions or suffering (Howe, 2013)

There are many definitions of empathy and it is difficult to settle on a single one:

• ”empathy is a social and emotional skill that helps us feel and comprehend the emotions, wishes, intentions, thoughts, and needs of others… empathy makes us aware of and available to the emotions, circumstances, and needs of others so that we can interact with them skilfully” (McLaren, 2013)

• ”empathy is a defining feature of our humanity, and without empathy a person is missing an essential part of his or her humanity” (Agosta, 2015)

• ”the ability to share someone else's feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person's situation” (The Cambridge Dictionary)

• ”empathy is feeling and understanding the emotions and experiences of others” (Segal et al., 2017)

• ”it is a way to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, feel their stress and pain, and do something about their pain” (Pallapa, 2022)

Therefore, empathy can be understood as one or more connected processes or mental states, such as (Coplan & Goldie, 2011):

• Feeling what someone else feels
• Caring about another person
• Being emotionally affected by another’s emotions and experiences, even if one is not necessarily experiencing the same emotions
• Putting yourself in someone else’s situation
• Imagining yourself to be another in the other person’s situation
• Drawing conclusions about another’s mental state

The three most common types of empathy (Pallapa, 2022):

• Cognitive empathy – the ability to put oneself in the other person’s shoes and rationally experience what the other person is going through

• Emotional empathy – the ability to share another person’s feelings and develop a deeper understanding of that person

• Compassionate empathy – the most active form of empathy, which involves taking effective action to alleviate the pain of suffering

The stages of empathy development and application (Young, 2015):

Developing empathy – begins with listening, followed by an optional post-listening phase in which a person thinks through, rereads, or summarizes what he or she has heard. This leads to a person developing a much deeper and more comprehensive understanding of what is being heard
Applying empathy – begins by looking for patterns of thinking and decision-making and summarizing them across a whole group of people; the next step is to step into a person’s shoes and try out their thought processes

Developing and applying empathy takes time and dedication

Employee EmpathyClick to read  

Employee empathy

People are the true value creators in organizations
Empathy is critical due to the ever-increasing diversity in the workforce
The generational diversity of team members within organizations makes it difficult to address their needs
Respect for employees and colleagues can strengthen social bonds within an organization
Empathy in the workplace can help build trust between employees
Empathy is positively related to job performance
Empathy promotes a better organizational culture

The benefits of empathy in the workplace:

Helps people better understand others and meet their needs
Enables people to build social relationships
Helps people connect, communicate and collaborate with others
Enables people to respond appropriately in social situations
Helps people regulate their emotions
It is beneficial for both physical and psychological well-being

The ways of encouraging empathy (Ventura, 2019):

Be curious
Be honest
Be vulnerable 
Be open-minded  
Be selfless 
Be undeterred 
Be brave 

Improving Empathy in the WorkplaceClick to read  

Empathy can be learned, and organizations can promote a more empathic workplace and help managers improve their empathy skills in a number of ways:

• Talk about empathy 
• Teach listening 
• Encourage real perspective conversations 
• Encourage compassion 
• Support global managers 

Talk about empathy - Managers should be aware that empathy is important, especially in today’s workplace. Giving time and attention to others enhances empathy, which in turn, enhances your performance and improves your perceived effectiveness.

Teach listening - To understand others and sense what they are feeling, managers must be good listeners. Active listening is a person’s willingness and ability to hear and understand the other person. When a manager is a good listener, people feel respected and trust can grow.

Encourage real perspective conversations – Managers should always put themselves in the other person’s shoes.

Encourage compassion - Support managers who care about how someone else feels or consider the impact of business decisions on employees, customers, and communities.

Support global managers - Working across cultural boundaries requires managers to understand people who have very different perspectives and experiences.

Empathic LeadershipClick to read  

Empathic leadership

Empathic leadership is a leadership style that focuses on understanding and identifying with the needs of others
Empathy enables leaders to read the emotions of their team members in order to achieve common goals    
Empathy contributes to better negotiation, collaboration and conflict resolution

The features of empathic leadership (Pallapa, 2022)

focuses on understanding the needs of team members and being sensitive to their deficits and growth needs
makes everyone realize that they are an important part of the same team that is trying to accomplish the same purpose
increases psychological safety within the organization
increases productivity, morale and loyalty of the team

The characteristics of empathic leaders (Riess & Neporent, 2018; Pallapa, 2022):

they excel at managing relationships
they create bonds and hold groups together so that they are better able to connect and understand each other’s interests and perspectives
they create a safe environment in which people can express their hopes and fears
they do not try to please everyone
they are respected, trusted and consulted, even in times of hardship and crisis
they are authentic, vulnerable, approachable, attentive, appreciative, and helpful

The pitfalls of empathic leadership (Pallapa, 2022):

impeding good decision-making – empathy can influence thinking and perception, and distort judgement
empathy can lead to unconscious bias – leaders may give preferential treatment to people who are similar to them and may unconsciously hire or promote those people
empathy can be limited – empathy is energy consuming
an excess of empathy can lead to apathy or burnout - leaders who constantly demonstrate empathy in the workplace can become emotionally drained, which can lead to apathy in their personal lives


Key takeawaysClick to read  

The term ‘digital well-being’ is used to refer to the impact of digital technologies on what it means to live a life that is good for a human being
Companies have to create an environment where leadership and employees can stay connected while working from home. 
Staying connected while working from home should come naturally
Regular human interactions are important for mental and physical health 

Test Yourself!


Empathy is a complex phenomenon, and this unit, entitled Empathy in the Workplace, looks at definitions of empathy and distinguishes between different types of empathy. It also discusses employee empathy, explains the benefits of empathy in the workplace, and identifies ways to improve empathy in the workplace. Finally, it discusses empathic leadership and the characteristics of empathic leadership and empathic leaders.


Empathy, Types of empathy, Employee empathy, Empathic leadership


•    Agosta, L. (2015). A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, narrative and recovery in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. London: Routledge
•    Center for Creative Leadership (2016). Empathy in the Workplace: A Tool for Effective Leadership [White paper].
•    Coplan, A., Goldie, P. (2011). Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.
•    Empathy (The Cambridge Dictionary)
•    Howe, D. (2013). Empathy: What it is and why it matters. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
•    McLaren, K. (2013). The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill. Colorado: Sounds True
•    Pallapa, G. (2022). Leading with empathy: Understanding the needs of today’s workforce. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
•    Riess, H., Neporent, L. (2018). The empathy effect: seven neuroscience-based keys for transforming the way we live, love, work, and connect across differences. Boulder CO: Sounds True
•    Segal, E. A., Gerdes, K. E., Lietz, C. A., Wagaman, M. A., Geiger, J. M. (2017). Assessing Empathy. New York, NY: Columbia University Press
•    Ventura, M. (2019). Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership. Hachette UK
•    Young, I. (2015). Practical Empathy: For Collaboration and Creativity in Your Work. Brooklyn, New York: Rosenfeld Media