25 August 2021

How to develop and practice empathy with colleagues during COVID

Working from home and lockdowns have made us isolated from each other, creating loneliness and challenging our mental health. Someone you’re working with may be silently struggling with their mental health, so practising empathy and emotional intelligence is more important than ever as we work together through the pandemic.

Developing emotional intelligence skills

Empathy is our ability to recognise or feel the emotions another person is experiencing. Developing an understanding of how others feel will help you to develop stronger relationships with others.

Recognising people’s emotions – Making an effort to observe the emotions your coworkers may be feeling will help you work with them effectively. Look at their body language, what they’re saying and recognise how other factors in their life may be influencing their mood; such as financial pressures, or their family to name a few.

Anticipating actions – Identifying other people’s emotions will help you predict how people will respond to you. Knowing what may happen will help you make better decisions about your own actions in addition to what is appropriate to say in certain situations.

Keeping oneself calm – The ability to remain calm when in challenging situations, such as dealing with a hostile coworker, is a form of emotional intelligence. If you can remain calm, you can make better decisions about how you communicate with this person and avoid escalating the situation into something worse.

How to practise empathy with coworkers

Stay Connected – While working from home, try to stay in contact with coworkers to maintain that social connection you had in the office. If you feel someone is struggling, going through a traumatic event or experienced a loss, you might want to send care packages, groceries or meals to them to express your support and show that you care about their wellbeing throughout this difficult period. 

Good person, bad circumstances – If someone is being negative, confrontational or absent-minded, it’s best not to jump to conclusions about the person’s character. You may want to remind yourself it is a “good person experiencing bad circumstances,” and make the assumption that a negative situation is causing their actions. For example, if someone is acting hostile, they may be stressed about the pandemic. If they’re ignoring your emails, they may be snowed under with work or distracted with managing home school for their kids. We truly don’t know what someone is going through until we walk in their shoes, so assume the best and don’t let this negative experience impact your working relationship.

Starting the conversation with those struggling

It’s not always easy to keep the conversation going when someone says they’re not OK, but it could change a life. RUOK provides recommendations to begin the conversation with someone that may be struggling mentally.  

1. Approaching someone you are concerned about

Try to be friendly but concerned in your approach. Help them open up by asking questions like “How are you going?”. Using phrases such as “It looks like” or “It sounds like” is a non-confrontational way to express what you see without sounding critical or malicious. If they don’t want to talk, don’t criticise them as it is difficult for people to open up.

2. Listen with an open mind

When listening to what the person is saying, take what they say seriously and don’t interrupt or judge them for what they are saying. They won’t open up if they don’t feel you want to hear everything they have to say. If you need to encourage them to say more, ask open questions such as, “How are you feeling about that?” or “How long have you felt that way?”

3. Encourage action

If they seem to be struggling for more than two weeks, suggest they go see a professional for help. Talking to a GP is a good place to start, while Lifeline is also a great resource. Offer support to help them through this process and don’t take it personally if they don’t want your assistance.

4. Check in

Stay in touch and provide genuine support where you can. If they haven’t done anything, don’t judge them.

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