Why Empathy At Work Needs To Extend Beyond The Coffee Break

Thank you to Flic Taylor for writing up this blog post after she attended Lorie’s talk, The Power of Love and Compassion in the Workplace, at the recent Human Resources Professionals Association conference in Toronto.


Many of us spend more time at work with our co-workers than we do at home with our loved ones. No wonder our workplace environment and co-worker interactions have a significant impact on us.

It’s saddening to read that toxic workplaces are the fifth-leading cause of death in the U.S., according to Stanford University professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, author of Dying for a Paycheck.

This statistic is not only heartbreaking to discover, but is a relatable situation to those who have survived a toxic workspace. A stressful work environment can play havoc with a person’s self-esteem, mental wellness and outlook on life. It’s no use labelling it as ‘just a job’ when the toxicity invades your personal life, too.

Lorie Corcuera, co-founder and CEO of SPARK Creations, shared fascinating research in her inspiring talk, The Power of Love and Compassion in the Workplace, at the recent Human Resources Professionals Association conference in Toronto.

“When we take our issues home with us they have a bigger impact,” said Corcuera. “Even if we’re putting on a good face and saying, ‘everything’s fine,’ we’re still passing on the energy to our kids, and they don’t know what to do with it.”

Who can relate to this? Even if you don’t have children in your life, you may be putting on a brave face to hide your stress from your parents, friends or partner. But, there’s no fooling the human emotional and neurological system.

The neuroscience between stress and love

Corcuera reminded her audience that love is the opposite of fear as she discussed the neuroscience behind stress and love. When we experience human connection, we release the love hormone, oxytocin. This irreplaceable hormone “is associated with empathy, trust, bonding, connection and relationship-building,” she explained.

The opposite of oxytocin is cortisol — the stress hormone released by humans during the fight or flight response. It protected us in prehistoric times when we felt threatened.

Corcuera said: “We have higher reported incidents of mental illness than ever before because people feel unsafe in the workplace — not because of physical threats, but because cortisol is released when we’re afraid of anything.”

As humans, we can’t release oxytocin at the same time as cortisol, therefore, we can’t feel empathy for our co-workers when we feel threatened in the workplace.

What is empathy?

Researcher, author and speaker Brené Brown has spent many years studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. She said: “Empathy doesn’t require that we have the exact same experiences as the person sharing their story with us… Empathy is connecting with the emotion that someone is experiencing, not the event or the circumstance.”

According to Brown, it may sound as simple as: “I’ve been there, too, and that really hurts.” Or: “It sounds like you’re in a rough situation. I’m here to listen.”

How we can show empathy towards our co-workers?

1Put aside your own viewpoint and metaphorically put yourself in another person’s shoes. By doing this, you may better understand the fears and motivations behind other people’s behaviours.

2Stop, take a moment and check in with your attitude. Are you more concerned with winning or being right? Is your priority to find a solution, build relationships, and accept others? Without an open mind, you won’t have enough room for empathy.

3Validate the other person’s perspective by acknowledging it. It’s okay to agree to disagree with someone. Show that you understand their viewpoint and that you appreciate they may have good reason to hold their opinions. Now, that is powerful empathy in action!

4Listen. Focus your attention on listening to the entire message the other person is trying to convey. Look beyond their literal verbal words. Try to ‘listen in’ on their tone and body language. Try to sense their emotions, what they are feeling, and if they are holding something back.

The power of feeling connected and understood

The greatest need in our modern day lives is to feel connected. We yearn to be seen, heard, understood, supported and, most importantly, not judged by others.

By consciously taking an interest in the lives of others and showing empathy towards co-workers, we begin a positive ripple effect. Our actions show the importance of understanding others who may not share the same outlook or value systems. When we understand others, the nature of human connection means they may try to understand us too.

Empathy is a constant awareness of the fact that your concerns are not everyone’s concerns and that your needs are not everyone’s needs,” — Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It.

Be kind. Show empathy. Always.

Sharon Brown-John