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Why Empathy Matters: Being More Empathetic at Work Can Help Reduce Work-related Stress

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In the last two decades, increasing numbers of news articles, reports, surveys and studies confirm what most of us already knew: For the majority of American employees, work = stress.

  • 80% of employees are stressed at work due to at least one factor;
  • Almost half of them confess that they don’t know how to manage occupational stress and need guidance;
  • 25% cite their job as the number-one stressor in their lives;
  • Work-related stress causes employees to entertain violent thoughts –
    • A quarter of stressed-out workers have felt like lashing out because of their stress; and
    • More than half of that number felt like striking a co-worker.

We all have felt some pressure at work at one point or another in our professional lives, as any job will contain areas that can cause employees to become stressed out. Even though these factors can vary depending on the individual and his or her particular occupation, the hits often keep on coming at most jobs. The daily demands, lack of control, long hours and heavy workloads, work-to-personal-life imbalance, uncertainty about their employment future, lack of support, intimidating bosses, and inexperienced or uncooperative co-workers, as well as employees’ own reactions to these things, mean that stress continues from day to day.

While some of us can manage work-related pressure well and don’t let it affect our personal lives, for others coping is not so easy. Many loathe coming to their workplace every morning because they already know that they will not have a good day there. When days like this start to pile up, workers are at risk of becoming chronically stressed, which in turn can cause numerous health problems, in particular hypertension and related cardiovascular diseases. When you say “My job is making me sick,” you might just be right!

Furthermore, occupational stress doesn’t affect only the person subjected to it; it also impacts our relationships with co-workers and various other people in our lives.

How does an article on empathy help with managing stress? Empathy is all about understanding others; it’s a skill that allows us to relate to other people and their problems by being able to imagine what they are going through as if those experiences were our own. When it comes to stress, learning empathic skills toward co-workers or even those in charge can help to reduce a stressful response.

Unfortunately, the skill of empathy and the vagaries of the workplace don’t often coincide. Maybe when we talk about understanding and accommodating the needs of our customers or clients, empathy does matter, but it rarely is mentioned in the context of work relationships with colleagues, and virtually never when issues involve bosses and supervisors. Some experts argue that the problem with business today is misattributed to a dearth of innovation, whereas it should be ascribed to a lack of empathy.

Quality of work relationships does matter, and there is now a good bit of scientific evidence to prove that being empathetic at work can not only create a more collaborative environment and foster good relationships with co-workers, but also reduce the amount of work-related stress. A recent European study of nearly 3,000 managers found that more than 60% of them feel stressed at work. The researchers from BI Norwegian Business School discovered that managers who had good relationships with their employees, who in turn understood the managers’ challenges and participated in solving those problems, experienced significantly less stress.

While it is true that there are many obstacles to achieving a stress-free work environment, our relationships with co-workers constitute one obstacle we can influence. We don’t get to choose the people we work with – a modern workplace is a hodge-podge of cultures, personalities and experiences – but we can choose to openly communicate with our colleagues and treat them with compassion, dignity and respect.

Supportive, empathetic relationships may not come naturally, and it does take exercising an “empathy muscle” to get good at this. So here are some ways in which we can build cordial relationships with colleagues and bosses and, in turn, reduce stress at work.

  1. Practice reframing. Stress stems from our own reactions to situations and people, and we are the ones who react and frame the situation. Reframing can help us see things in a different light or from the perspective of another person. Oftentimes we react to problems a certain way because of our feelings and subjective interpretations of others’ motives and intentions. But not everyone is the same, so a desire to get things done can be misconstrued as being overly aggressive and pushy. A person who needs to think things through can be perceived as disengaged and unwilling to act. Reframing means noticing the judgmental words we apply and making them more objective in response.
  2. Identify and effectively manage negative thoughts and feelings. Our thoughts and subsequent behaviors influence the people we interact with much in the same manner as their actions affect us. Negative self-talk not only worsens our own state of mind, it can also adversely affect our communication with other people. It’s important to identify the triggers that set off our negative self-talk, and make a conscious choice to stop it and turn it to more positive language. Any negativity will diminish our capacity for empathy and will heighten our stress responses.
  3. Practice being grateful. When work gets stressful, it’s a lot easier to focus on how bad things are and disregard everything good that we still have or get to experience. Things don’t always work out smoothly, so it is beneficial to remind ourselves once in a while about what we are grateful for. If the job is stressful but your co-workers are wonderful and supportive people – show your gratitude and appreciation to them; if the people you work with are causing you stress but you still love your job – be grateful for it; if your job is nothing like your dream job but it helps you take care of your family, than it is also something to be grateful for.
  4. Avoid negative people. As much as you don’t want to be a source of negativity for your co-workers, you don’t want others’ stress and discontent to affect you. Co-workers who always complain about their jobs and bosses, judge and gossip about others, or do not care about doing their work well are not the sort of crowd you should stick with. Colleagues who struggle with their workload, for example, deserve your empathy and will likely appreciate the help offered, but there are also people who thrive on making others feel miserable, and no amount of empathy can change them, so the wise decision would be to avoid such people altogether.
  5. Communicate. Honest and open communication is key to creating and maintaining empathetic relationships with co-workers. Instead of keeping your doubts, concerns and frustrations to yourself, choose to discuss them with your colleagues. It’s the easiest way to avoid misunderstandings and related stress. Communication brings people closer together, and allows them to get to know one another better and therefore understand each other’s position, motivations and behaviors, and way of thinking. Communication may not be as glamorous as some other strategies for relationship-building, but it does help bolster empathy, and therefore allows for more effective teamwork and greater employee productivity.

Stress at work is hardly avoidable, but we are not helpless in the face of it. Honing our ability to treat others with empathy is one of the most effective ways to diminish work-related stress. When we make an effort to really understand others, they usually react positively in response and try to understand us as well. Let’s remember that we are capable of being empathetic, and it’s a simple yet effective way to foster healthier work relationships and prevent undue stress.