Empathy and Compassion in the Workplace

modern practice podcast

On this episode of The Modern Practice Podcast, Rectangle Health’s Executive Vice President of Marketing, Michelle Dowling, joins host Gary Tiratsuyan to discuss the importance of empathy and compassion in the workplace.

Michelle leans on over 10 years of leadership experience to share the difference between these two key traits of a successful work environment and the strategies that healthcare practices can immediately deploy to develop strong employee retention and satisfaction.


Gary Tiratsuyan 00:22

Without further ado, hello everybody and welcome.

Back to the Modern Practice Podcast. I’m very excited to be joined by Michelle Dowling, executive vice president of marketing here at Rectangle Health. We’re going to be talking about two very important elements of a successful workplace today. But before we get into it, Michelle, thank you so much for taking the time.

Michelle Dowling 00:40

Hi Gary, it’s great to be back. We’re tackling a big and important topic and I hope to shed some light on the subject given some of the recent work we’ve done, some of the things we’ve learned that work, and some of the things that haven’t.

Empathy Vs. Compassion in Corporate Culture

Gary Tiratsuyan 00:53

Always a pleasure and always fun, Michelle. So those two elements we’re talking about today are really important to a strong, successful and safe workplace. They are empathy and compassion. And a lot of times I think it seems as though they’re being used interchangeably, but they have two very different meanings and when put into action, do two very separate things. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?

Michelle Dowling 01:16

Of course. So when we refer to corporate culture, empathy and compassion are often used interchangeably. And even if you Google compassion in the workplace, you’ll see results that come up about empathy more often than not. But I do believe they’re fundamentally different and both extremely important, as you said, but again, very different. So I’m going to walk through a couple of specific examples, then come back around to the meanings and how they operate in action. And when we, as Rectangle Health were thinking about how to articulate our corporate culture, I found that there were some traits that seemed very relevant and empathy was a big one for sure. And it certainly feels that the world needs more empathy. But it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily an inherent corporate value that is tangible, that makes sense for an organization. It’s a perspective.

It’s the way we perceive a person to feel in a certain way or the way you physically feel the emotions of another person. So this is different than I think, a core value. It starts with gaining information and how a person feels in a particular situation, and then you need to put information to action. It’s complex because it’s dependent upon how in touch a person, an individual is with their own emotions. So in the workplace, there are so many teams and projects and processes, decisions that need to be made. This power of empathy takes precedence because we need to understand what the emotions are that are happening in a specific environment and what is the best interests of our employees and clients. So it’s the ability really, to experience and relate to the thoughts of others.

And it’s one way to step into another person’s shoes, to be aware of their feelings and really understand their needs. And when were talking about it as a core value, we realized it was less like a trait and more like a skill that just like a muscle, needs to be developed over time with practice. And the workplace is ideal way to practice the skill, but it’s also a high value that it’s done well and done right. So an empathetic workplace tends to have so many benefits. Stronger work, collaboration, less stress, greater morale. Employees recover quickly or more quickly from challenges. But it’s all built on the basis of trust and understanding. And great teams need both.

And there are core values trust, excellence, mindfulness, accountability that I believe really becomes the core values that were working toward when we thought a little bit more about compassion. Again, really important. But it differs in that it’s more like a mirror. It’s more that it shows people how you connect to them and care about them. It’s a very positive emotion, it spreads harmony. And in the workplace it gives us this balance between kindness and understanding, but also holding people accountable. And compassion, in my opinion, is subjective, right? It’s really being in tune with what matters most to the individual and paying attention. So when you express compassion to a colleague, when they’re in pain or undergoing some stress, you listen without judgment. And when we do this compassionate act impacts the one who’s caring and being cared for.

So when were thinking about our core values, underpinnings to all of it was compassion and empathy. And I also think that it’s really more of a barometer of a company’s true heart health and it’s interwoven into these values, but I feel like they’re more skill based and something that we need to teach and practice in real time.

Encouraging Compassion in the Workplace

Gary Tiratsuyan 05:12

And knowing that it is possible to have empathy but sort of stop short of compassion, right that moment where you start to think, what can I do to help? How do you encourage more compassion in the workplace, especially facing workforce shortages, juggling a million tasks and trying to get everything done in a day? The stress levels and fatigue are sky high.

Michelle Dowling 05:37

That’s right. And everyone is under this busy umbrella. And we’ve talked to several teammates and we’re talking people are now at nine to ten meetings a day, phones are ringing off the hooks at the practices. You’re constantly being distracted. It certainly does not bode well to demonstrate patience, peace, compassion or empathy. So I think what we try to do is rewind and start with the outcome, right? Compassion creates connections, it creates positive internal and interpersonal relationships. So if you think about your manager and your teammate that you work with every day, if you fundamentally believe that they care about you and have compassion towards you’re going to be a productive, positive, engaged employee. We’ve all had managers and coworkers that weren’t the case.

I mean, I’m sure you can think about and feel that right now when there was that friction and how hopeless and defeated you feel when you’re going into an environment that is not compassionate and there is no empathy. So spending a long time in a place like that, in that environment where we don’t receive or get the chance to express compassion, it takes a toll on our mental health and well being. So when we look at research, we know that where there are compassion, where there is compassion, there are highly functioning teams, there’s more loyalty, there’s more commitment to the work. And that even touches clients and patients and enhances their satisfaction. People can feel that energy is transferable.

And compassion from leaders and coworkers definitely employs a feeling of gratitude, influences people to reciprocate in the same way when they notice someone struggling with adversities and then there’s someone who comes alongside them. And in being in the healthcare industry, there’s no greater industry more important to illustrate the importance of compassion and empathy and being treated with kindness, that creates that emotional attachment for employees that really do their best work and take the well being of their patients. Top of mind.

Gary Tiratsuyan 07:51

I love what you said there about building up the team and that feeling of gratitude and the influence that it has. It really permeates through a team, through an organization. But sustainability is tough. You can rally the troops, get everyone behind it, then in a snap of a finger, it’s sort of already fading or faded completely. How do you keep that momentum in building this strong, empathetic and compassionate space at work, right?

Michelle Dowling 08:20

And there’s a million things that go on day to day that can change an environment in a heartbeat. So I really do believe it goes back to the ripple effect. I believe that one small act of kindness can have a significant effect and cause one person to feel more upbeat in their day, more likely to pass along kind act to yet another person without even realizing it. I think there’s a transference that happens when we’re witnessing something like that. It’s slowing down when it’s important. It’s that little voice listening to that little voice that tells you something else is at work here and you need to pay attention, asking questions, learning perspectives of others, removing obstacles from one another. I think that’s really where it begins.

And anything can happen during the day, but it’s when someone just kind of stops and tries to go down a different path, even though there are so many things at work. And I think as leaders, compassionate leaders really define that. And they’re someone who people want to follow and who inspire others and create that optimistic vision for the office, the practice, the organization, because they make people feel valued and appreciated. It sets that positive tone. I think that sometimes we got to dig deep for that compassion, but it starts to become just another muscle that we learn to use. And there’s a saying that says no act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted. There’s no limit to being kind. There’s not enough of it that we can do.

And I think it’s such a positive, powerful emotion that ripple effect, if we just think about how that might change someone’s day, there’s so much power in that and we can’t discount how a simple act of kindness can change things.

A Catalyst for Compassion

Gary Tiratsuyan 10:27

I absolutely love that and I love what you said about it’s starting from leadership and coming down. That one act could change a person’s day, no matter how bad it is or how flustered they are, how busy they are. So all great points and thanks for sharing that. Before we wrap up, I do have one final question that leans on your experience as a leader here at Rectangle Health and in past positions. So personally, if you were standing in front of leaders in different organizations, different areas of expertise, doesn’t have to be healthcare, it could be executives and managers, all different levels. What’s the starting point for being that catalyst of change and developing this type of culture?

Michelle Dowling 11:08

It’s a great question and I will go out on a limb to tell you. I think what it really takes is courage. I think that as a leader, we know these things fundamentally, but we’re always chasing something that is performance, that is tangible numbers, or we’re trying to get things done. We’re so performance based that I think we have to be courageous to stop and say that these are the things that matter. So what I would say if I was standing in front of a room and I would try not to be nervous and say this out loud, but I would say be generous. Be generous in how you interpret situations. And there will always be variances between your peers, yourself, your direct reports, your staff.

And even so, one of those most important things that you can do is to be generous with your time attention. And if you do get a curt email or someone doesn’t say something that sits well with you can’t always assume that there’s negative vibes towards you. It’s that not to be so offended. And I know it’s cliche to say you can’t imagine what’s going on in another person’s shoes, but I think we always have to remind ourselves that if we’re generous and we come to the table with that compassionate, empathetic point of view, we won’t get so overwhelmed by other people’s needs and their suffering. And we can’t think that way of, oh well, there’s nothing I can do and that’s their problem and not mine. But I think that shift of being generous becomes I’m capable.

And I’m surrounded by people who are capable. And I can help them get to a good place. I can free up bottlenecks, I can make it a better communication between us. And you can focus on the dynamic and the circumstances rather than maybe someone’s external appearance and get to the underlying issue without placing blame. The next thing I would say is that it is really up to us to lead by example and become accountable. Leaders need to lead. Showing compassion requires us to have compassion for ourselves as well. So if we’re not compassionate towards ourselves, we can never be compassionate towards another. So that means we have to show up and be vulnerable. It means that in order to be the catalyst of change, we have to develop this culture of empathy and compassion and consciously lean into that deliberately.

And it means to be present, not focused on the 9000 things that we have to do, but sit with the person who’s in front of us. That means putting down the phone, being less available to social media, or to even just people who need us as well. And it’s also being insatiably curious. This is probably one of the biggest things that I’ve learned as a leader in the last six to nine months, is the more questions I ask, the better results I get because I get to the heart and the root of the matter.

There’s a compassion workplace model that says there are five aspects of compassion, and one of them is to become aware of the needs of others, to be non judgmental of their viewpoints, to be resilient and tolerant toward personal distress, to be able to feel and show empathy at all levels of your professional life. But it’s also to be accountable and responsible for the good and bad outcomes of a team. And how you get there. I think all of these are the really true come down to asking good questions. And when you ask good questions, you’re physically present, you’re mentally present, and you’re emotionally available to the person in front of you.

Gary Tiratsuyan 15:18

That’s great advice, Michelle. And I think we can all take a step back. Whether you’re in a leadership position or not, wherever you may know it’s, developing those habits of being that generous person that hears out that coworker or colleague that may be suffering in one way or another, silently, vocally, whatever it may be. So developing those habits is definitely a great starting point. I love that. And if I can say personally, as someone who’s experienced both sides of that workplace spectrum where compassion and empathy exists and in the past where it didn’t, it really, truly matters. Especially when you log off for the day. It makes a change in your personal life and just helps be healthier in your mental and physical state.

So I want to thank you for the culture you’ve built here and again, it really makes a difference and matters.

Michelle Dowling 16:19

Thank you, Gary. It means everything to me for you to say that, because I think one thing that I am always guided by is creating a safe place for people to express themselves and to do their best work, especially at the office. It’s not always easy, and there are obviously times where that doesn’t happen. But my guiding star, my North Star, is always to create a safe environment for people to talk to me and to talk to one another. So empathy and compassion encompasses every single aspect of our self development, to your point who we are at work, who we show up as at home, personally, professionally, and it makes all the difference for those people that we interact with at the office and those people that we love and care about.

So when we present, empathetically and compassionately, we can reach people’s hearts, spread some joy, and resonate positively with one another.

Gary Tiratsuyan 17:17

Thank you so much again, Michelle. It’s always fun and always a learning experience when I get to talk to you. For our listeners, thank you for tuning in. Subscribe to the Modern Practice podcast and leave your thoughts and feedback on this episode. And be on the lookout for more from the Rectangle Health series coming soon. Till next time, everybody.

Get started today!

Thousands of providers like you supercharge their front office with Practice Management Bridge. Schedule a call to see how we can help reduce admin work, so you can focus on your patients.

Book a Demo