While empathy and the professional workplace may seem to be mutually exclusive, leaders can adopt these 3 practical empathetic practices in order to promote employee wellbeing and productivity.


Leaders so often have many things on their plates: having to manage business outcomes, employee performance, client engagement, and more, making it inevitable to miss out on what festers beneath the surface that leads to such  worries. For example, one main driving issue could be the development of a negative workplace culture  . Although it may seem intuitive to us how a negative workplace culture is like, there are often times where such negativity in the workplace is not shown explicitly. Hence, we may sometimes be unable to identify such an environment, before their consequences surface through other aspects such as poor work performance . There are many factors that can lead to the development of a negative workplace culture: toxic office politics, the pressure to work over-time, and more. The result of this is that it can contribute to the development of negative mental health among employees (“Mental Health at Work”, 2019). This relationship between negative workplace culture and mental health was estimated to cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion per year in lost productivity (“Mental Health”, 2019). If we look into our own local context, the cost of stress and poor mental health on the Singapore economy is US$2.3 billion a year (“Chronic Stress”, 2019).


The overarching question is then: how can we promote a more positive workplace culture? One way we can do so would be to practice empathy within the workplace .


Why should we engage in empathetic practices?

Empathy and professionalism may seem to fall on two opposite ends of the workplace spectrum – in a culture focused on productivity and results, it seems to leave no room for emotions. Empathy, at first glance, may seem  to be a weakness in the professional space, and can hinder employee productivity  – things that  are opposite of what is valued by employers. However, upon further investigation, we will find empathy to be a strength that we can employ in the workplace to boost organisational culture. Empathy can be separated into different types, and of the three (cognitive[1], emotional[2], compassionate[3]) (Goleman, 2007), cognitive empathy can be especially helpful for effective communication and navigating the workplace dynamics. Cognitive empathy allows you to take the perspective of someone else (Davis, 1983), making it possible for you to build up on negotiation and motivational skills. In fact , cognitive empathy has been positively correlated with managerial job performance in countries such as Singapore (Gentry et al., 2007).


How can we engage in empathetic practices?

Here are 3 practical ideas on how empathetic practices can be implemented by leaders in the workplace and how the benefits that they can provide for both leaders and employees alike.


Health Circles 



What Are Health Circles?

Health circles are employee groups consisting of five to ten employees from the same company hierarchy level, who meet regularly to identify and evaluate work-related problems, before coming up with relevant solutions (Konradt, 2000). Discussions are aimed at being structured and conducive in allowing employees to share their views. The outcome of such a discussion is that the company management will be informed of these suggestions and work on implementing solutions.


Benefits of Health Circles

Health circles are effective in improving physical and psychosocial working conditions for employees. Employees are likely to see improved health which in turn reduces sickness absence within the workplace (Aust & Ducki, 2004). Subconsciously, employees are able to gain a sense of personal control over their work and work environment when they are able to give feedback that they know will be acted upon. With a regained sense of control, employees see better coping abilities under stress (Karasek, 1979).


Another benefit of health circles is that it acts as a form of support system at work and contributes to the mental well-being of employees. Studies show that simply having a space to discuss work issues together was beneficial for employees. Participants of this said study have reported significant positive change in their stress factors both immediately after sessions and 2 months afterwards – almost five times more as compared to their peers who did not undergo the sessions (Konradt, 2000).


How Can We Implement Health Circles?

There are 3 main parts to this process titled: Problem, Evaluate and Strategy. Between each part, there will be a break provided to allow for informal exchange and discussions amongst employees.

  1. Problem: All participants will introduce themselves and start discussing the main topic at hand. This topic could be about anything relating to work: telecommuting, workplace culture or job-specific problems.
  2. Evaluate: Each participant then shares their coping strategies and evaluates how helpful it has been.
  3. Strategy: All participants will then come up with a concrete coping mechanism for the stressors they mentioned in ‘Problem’. (Konradt, 2000)


The whole discussion can be done in a single session, or spread across multiple sessions with a focus on a single part each time. In order to facilitate these sessions and provide a healthy discussion space, a trained psychologist can help to mediate the session and provide useful coping strategies (Konradt, 2000).


Active Listening  

What is Active Listening?

Active listening is a technique that helps people listen effectively, making the other party feel seen and heard. This can be seen as an extension of cognitive and emotional empathy, where   one party will be able to deeply understand both the thoughts and feelings of the sharing party.   The ability to listen effectively has been greatly valued for its relationship with effective leadership behaviour (Bechler & Johnson, 1995) and empathy (Haley et al., 2017). How this differs from health circles is that active listening acts at a more personal and individual level between leaders and their employees.


Benefits of Active Listening

Active listening allows employees to feel valued and listened to, hence affirming the relationship between leaders and their team (Cooper, 1997). This helps to build trust and rapport between leaders and their team, consequently leading to increased employee commitment and increased productivity (Helms & Haynes, 1992). It can also provide leaders with a more accurate understanding of what is being conveyed explicitly and implicitly in conversations (Sypher, 1984).


How Can We Be Active Listeners?

  • Allow the speaker to finish speaking, even if it may include a period of silence.
  • Pay attention to what they’re saying: make eye contact and give cues of affirmation. For example: responding with nods or verbal affirmations such as “that makes sense” where appropriate.
  • Paraphrase and summarise what they said and what you felt, back to them.
  • Do not listen with the intent to reply or rebut immediately. This distracts you from paying attention to what they are saying. (Grande, 2020)




What is Self-Awareness?

Self-awareness is an important aspect of practicing both cognitive and compassionate empathy . Self-awareness helps us to be mindful of, and understand others, making it easier for us to take on the perspectives of others – an essential part of cognitive empathy. It can also be a way to practice compassionate empathy when we learn how to manage our actions towards others.


Benefits of Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is shown to be linked to effective leadership (Bass & Yammarino, 1991) and increased empathy (Haley et al., 2017), thus boosting workplace culture in tandem with productivity. As leaders, it may be useful to consciously engage self-awareness, as it is linked to increased communication skills (Sutton et al., 2015), making it helpful for effectively conveying expectations with your team. Self-aware employers are better able to communicate coherent information with the team in a consistent manner, hence developing a positive workplace environment.


How Can We Be More Self-Aware?

Asking ‘What’, Not ‘Why’

The type of introspection that most of us are used to is to ask ourselves “Why did I do that,?” and “Why did I decide that?”. However, we may come to realise that it is not very effective. Research shows we simply do not have access to these unconscious motives, feelings and thoughts that we are looking for with ‘Why’ questions (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). To self-reflect more effectively, we should instead consider questions such as “What kind of situations usually lead me to this decision?” and “What do they have in common?”. When asked to reflect with “What” instead of “Why” questions, people are found to be more open to negative feedback as opposed to denying it (Hixon et al., 1993), and thus become more self-aware of their behaviour.


Draw a Career Timeline

Spend 10 minutes to not down major events that have happened throughout your career. This deceptively simple activity gives you a more bird’s-eye-view of the self, and can actually help you to realise personal patterns of behaviour. These personal patterns could manifest in the values you use to make career choices, or the kind of feedback you may receive time and time again. By re-discovering these certain aspects of yourself, it can lead to a renewed sense of self and awareness of your values and priorities (Leung, 2010). These past insights can help guide the way in which you lead, communicate, and make decisions, in the future.


Using empathy to support your employees at work does not necessarily require overtly emotional conversations or crossing professional boundaries. It can mean the practice of practical ideas like implementing health circles, active listening and increasing self-awareness. Empathy is not a practice that can be acquired overnight, however, with patience and consistency, it is something that can be cultivated with benefits to be sowed in both leadership and the workplace.


Dr. Jasmine Low, (PhD)., Camellia Wong (MA), Kam Wing Shan


[1] Cognitive empathy: perspective-taking – understanding how the other party feels and what they might be thinking.

[2] Emotional empathy: when you feel as if you can deeply relive the emotions of the other party, personally and physically.

[3] Compassionate empathy: understanding a person’s situation, experiencing the emotions that they may face, then spontaneously acting on them to help the other party out.


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