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The power of empathy in creating a healthier, more resilient future

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Patient safety is dependent on a workforce that is physically and psychologically safe, happy, and gratified.

Healthcare is a system concerned with maintaining and restoration of health by treatment and prevention of disease. This demands a workforce that consists of employees working towards the common goal of caring for the patients and communities with a deep sense of commitment. There is an indisputable expectation from healthcare workers to hone the right technical skills, medical knowledge and expertise, and also to be empathetic, compassionate and trustworthy.  

However recent studies and reports demonstrate a decline in empathy among healthcare professionals. The factors most often cited include long working hours, understaffing, inability to spend sufficient time with patients, increased pressure to meet operational targets, and ever-increasing workload. 

Even prior to COVID-19, persistent health workforce shortage limits the capacity to deliver essential health services in many countries. Already in 2016, WHO had projected a global shortfall of 18 million healthcare workers by 2030. This disparity is further widening due to the emotional impact of the pandemic on healthcare workers, along with mental health problems, stress and burnout, contributing to many health workers opting to leave the profession. 

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Dr. Kavita Bhalekar, Director of Nursing HealthPlus specialty centre & Moorfields Eye Hospital, a Mubadala Health Partner

Notably, the pandemic has also been a catalyst signifying that patient safety is dependent on a workforce that is physically and psychologically safe, happy and gratified. The IHI Lucian Leape Institute 2013 report, ‘Through the eyes of workforce’, emphasises that “unless caregivers are given the protection, respect and support they need, they are more likely to make errors, fail to follow safe practices and not work well in teams”. Mutual respect is integral in a work environment if the workforce is to find joy and meaning in work. There are fundamentally three questions that each employee must be able to answer affirmatively to find joy and meaning in work: 

  • Am I treated with dignity and respect by everyone? 
  • Do I have what I need so I can make a contribution that gives meaning to my life? 
  • Am I recognised and thanked for what I do? 

The vision of providing a safe and supportive work culture and building a resilient workforce requires commitment from leadership. There is no panacea, but every additional measure will be worth the investment. 

Establishing empathy at the workplace 

Empathy, as described by Simon Baron-Cohen, British Clinical Psychologist at the University of Cambridge, is like a universal solvent. Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble. Empathy at the workplace requires to be addressed at two levels: Empathetic Leadership and Empathetic Work Environment. 

Empathetic leadership 

Leadership requires to look beyond traditional management development strategies and foster critical skills for success. One of those skills is empathy – a vital leadership competency. Empathetic leadership, is the ability to understand the needs of others, and being aware of their feelings and thoughts.  

Leaders today need to be more “humane” and foster an environment of growth and well-being, recognizing the fact that employees are the greatest asset. Fortunately, Empathy is a trait that can be learned. Leaders are encouraged to: 

  • Become present, genuine and authentic 
  • Practice two-way communication 
  • Practice gratitude 
  • Mindfulness and compassionate 
  • Humility 

Empathetic work environment 

Highly reliable organissations are characterised by continuous learning, improvement, teamwork and transparency. The employee wellness program is the driving force for creating an environment where employees thrive. It is also the cornerstone for making the organisations the best place to work.  

A wellness programme aligned with organisational values provides a physically and psychologically safe work environment. In fact, companies that prioritise employee well-being outperform the S&P 500 by 235 per cent (kaiser Permanente 2020). The board categories of support that a wellness programme may include are physical support, mental support, financial support and social support; which include programmes but not limited to: 

  • Employee Assistance programme (EAP), 
  • Caregivers’ recognition programme 
  • Self-care workshops 
  • Financial well-being workshop 
  • Employee suggestion programme 
  • Compassion fatigue workshop 
  • Community volunteering programme 

Empathy promotes a resilient future 

Resilience, as per oxford dictionary is “the capacity to withstand or to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness”. Another definition states it as “the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; Elasticity”.  

Having resilient employees that can adapt with agility and perform well in adverse situations is valuable to the organisation. Hence building resilience is a win-win situation for both employees and the organisation as well. Empathy in the workplace is positively related to a resilient workforce.  

Research shows that employees with a strong sense of well-being are 81 per cent less likely to look for new job, are more engaged in work, and are 41 per cent less likely to cause absenteeism problems (kaiser Permanente 2020). 

A 2018 Workplace Empathy Study uncovered empathy as a key ingredient in employee engagement and retention for the current generation of active workforce. The millennials, people born between 1980-2000, comprise the largest group of the active workforce. This group brings their own value-sets to the workplace. They are: 

  • Team players and seek feedback from superiors 
  • They are career motivated but expect support to succeed 
  • They want to work with you, not for you 
  • Recognition is important 
  • Less bound to the role or employer 
  • Mission driven and want a sense of purpose 

Training leaders on how to accommodate these differences will create a work environment of collaboration, engagement and increase retention. In conclusion, the current and future workforce will be attracted to organisations that provide an empathetic work environment but will be retained only by an empathetic leader. 

References available on request. 
 
Dr. Kavita Bhalekar, PhD, MBA, RN, CPHQ, is the Director of Nursing HealthPlus specialty centre & Moorfields Eye Hospital, a Mubadala Health Partner. She will be speaking at the Quality Management conference at Arab Health 2023. 
 
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