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Can we be too empathetic in the workplace?

Can we be too empathetic in the workplace?

As an Executive and HR coach, I have worked across many diverse sectors, including large childcare and aged care centres.  You can imagine, these were the epicentres of caring, empathetic workplaces. The employees were warm, kind, incredibly hard working, and nurturing; they were the kind of people you might think make up a perfect workplace. Sadly, however, they were very challenging workplaces.  This happened due to a number of competing factors, and all the right intentions.  This article focuses on the overuse of the right intentions, which results in burn-out, and being emotionally volatile.

And while a childcare employee is the epitome of a professional who gives to others, numerous other careers also encourage increased empathy: Medical professionals, personal assistants, educators, social workers etc. And, of course, every other profession that requires interfacing with others!  These people run the same risk of over-investment, burnout, and emotional volatility as the childcare and aged care employees I described above.

Which makes me wonder: Is there such a thing as being too empathetic?

The short answer is yes. Imagine an employee who gives all they have to others to the point of burnout, takes on completely the emotions of those who surround them, and never gives the same care and attention that they give to others to themselves. They will not be able to serve the business in an effectively sustainable way.

The longer answer is, it depends. It depends on the balance of how much they are receiving vs. how much they are giving. The same employee that was described above might develop a significant self-care regimen, including boundary-setting, a full social support network, and develop their emotional intelligence and be the most valued and healthy employee in the business.

How can you ensure that you’re getting the best of your empathetic employees? Time and time again, I find that the most effective businesses share these characteristics:

  • Development of internal skills, and not just technical skills
  • Strong retention rates.  Employees still leave, but for the right reasons.
  • Strong foundation of trust.  They can, and do, raise issues, and the issues get addressed.

These outcomes are driven by a strong commitment on the part of the organization to a few key goals:

  • Recruit for attitude and potential
  • Walk the talk when it comes to values
  • Introduce and imbed emotional intelligence as a part of their culture
  • Lead with empathy and optimism

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