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Empathic Concern. What is it?

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

After two years of a life-changing slog in full PPE, the practices that have looked on this time as an opportunity to change the way we manage our staff for the better, are the practices with the best retention, the lowest absence rates, and the greatest satisfaction-at-work ratings.

The ads in the Veterinary publications have changed dramatically almost overnight because of the shortage of staff in the pool.

Now we see generous “5 nights on, 10 nights off” Rota’s, increases in annual leave, birthdays off work, etc. It makes for interesting reading.

Satisfaction at work, we know improves profitability (The Empathy-Profitability Link Magazine November 2018 ).

The client feels it and sees it. They hear it in our tone of voice when we pick up the phone. They need us to keep it together because, just as we think that they forget that we are humans as well as vets, we often forget that they are more than just pet owners and have their own stuff going on in the background too. If the vet can’t cope, how on earth can the pet owner cope?

Some managers may have lost sight of what it’s like to be a vet or nurse on the coal face. With an extra 3.2million pets in the UK since the pandemic started, it’s the stuff of nightmares.

The number of vets seeking counseling has tripled. The nurses are burning out, the receptionists are in crisis with car park consulting and the teams are feeling unappreciated, taken for granted, and often trapped in the UK if they have come from abroad.

The stark difference between the teams who have become closer because of the crisis and the teams who have fragmented due to weak leadership during the pandemic is jaw-dropping.

In Magazine November 2017, I briefly described the three main types of empathy.

Cognitive empathy: means “I understand what you are saying, and I can also understand what you are feeling but not saying.  I can communicate with you in a way you will clearly understand. We have a rapport”

Emotional empathy means: “I feel your distress. Also, I feel your joy and other emotions without the need for you to verbalize them”

Empathic concern: is an active kind of empathy. More like “When I see you are in distress, I have an overwhelming need to help you.”

These are the people who not only understand others and feel with others, but they also take action.

The best leaders have all three types of empathy running at the same time.

The case for Empathic concern vs just Empathy alone.

In Potential Project’s The Human Leader study, a bi-annual study of 5,000 companies across 100 countries, Leaders were asked if they were more likely to be in the Empathy class or the Empathic Concern class. The results were then correlated with both the leaders’ and employees’ experiences at work. 

The study showed that leaders who rate themselves high on Empathic Concern report 63% lower burnout, 66% lower stress, and a staggering 200% lower intent to quit their organisation compared to leaders who rated themselves in the Empathy only group. They felt more confident in their ability to lead others and were less likely to experience personal distress or be overwhelmed by negative emotions.

More specifically, the data shows that leaders with a less proactive Empathy preference have a 12% increased risk of burnout on average compared to their more proactive Empathic Concern counterparts.

To put this into perspective, a 12% increase in risk for burnout translates directly into an 11% increase in mortality risk for leaders.

The picture is similarly positive for employees being led by Proactive leaders. They are 25% more engaged in their jobs and 20% more committed to the organisation. Not surprisingly, they too have an 11% lower risk of burnout.

Acceptance and proaction

As mindfulness teachers, we often are teaching our clients to sit with difficult emotions. To name them, look them in the eye and accept them, versus avoidance which is often our normal reactive response.

That doesn’t mean we can’t also take steps to alleviate the difficulties.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Although life’s difficulties are often beyond our control, suffering is to a large extent determined by how we react to these difficulties. Our reaction can be under our control. Such is the power of the mind.

We can spend an hour sitting on the cushion deciding our emotional reaction to a given stimulus.

We can also spend time being proactive about tackling difficult situations. It’s not contrary to the teaching of mindfulness teachers. It’s a true human reaction.

When leaders and team members go the extra mile for others, the team becomes visibly and tangibly stronger and more intact.

Empathy is when we see someone suffer, understand the suffering they experience, and sit together with them. This is a good, altruistic response. But Empathic Concern is different.

Empathic Concern is to take a step back from empathy and ask ourselves what we can do to proactively support the person who is suffering while empathizing with them at the same time.

So how do I do It?

Wouldn’t it be great if our members were able to take care of their mental well-being? If only we could hand that responsibility onto them, with our support, of course, it would free up so much time for us as leaders? That would be Proactive Empathic Concern.

As Psychotherapeutic counselors, we know that if a client designs their well-being program and meditation techniques, it is so much more valid than if it were all guided and determined by us the therapists.

Being aware of the impact of the pandemic on each member of the team is a start. It’s surprisingly difficult and time consuming to do this.

What’s not helpful

  1. Putting a poster on the toilet door with various phone numbers to phone if you’re in crisis is very common. It’s rarely helpful although it does tick a box on the list of health and safety requirements as an employer. It’s done with good intentions.

The reality is that, once your employee is in crisis, they don’t have the will or the energy to make these phone calls. And even if they did, the waiting lists are months long.

  • You can plaster helpline adverts and posters the length of the most populated corridor in the practice. I know, because I have counselled hundreds of vets and nurses, that more needs to be done.
  • Webinars on how to look after your mental health is superb. If your staff logged on. But they don’t. I asked many of my patients why they don’t log on. It’s because the last thing they want to do after work is to log back on to work.

What is helpful

  1. True Empathic Concern combined with proactive leadership means that the leader will organize seminars for the staff which they attend in real-time during work hours. The consultations are blanked out for the day, the venue is close to work, the phones are turned off, and lunch is provided.
  2. The seminar is not about how to make a consultation into a profitable procedure this time. It’s teaching your staff how to take care of their mental wellbeing so that they don’t need the phone numbers on the back of the toilet door.

It’s about training them in techniques and giving them the tools to deal with crises and pandemics and life’s ups and downs.

Happiness comes through our deeper humanistic experiences like doing purposeful work, caring for others, being generous, and making authentic connections. Isn’t this the description of being a vet?

 It’s the long-term state of experiencing a meaningful, purposeful, and positive life. This describes our job perfectly.

Empathic Concern from leaders positively impacts organisational commitment, job performance, engagement, and decreases the incidence of burnout.

When leaders approach difficult situations with Empathic Concern, they help to encourage genuine human interactions, lifting not just the business, but our inter-staff relationships and our people, too.

Adapted from: Compassionate Leadership: How to do Hard Things in Human Way by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter. Published by Harvard Business Review Press, January 18, 2022