I’ve Been a Manager for 15 Years — This is How I Empathize With Employees Who Need Support at Work

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Deborah Sweeney102
MyCorporation.com CEO
May 19, 2024 at 4:52PM UTC

A year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, McKinsey & Company’s “Women in the Workplace 2021” report reveals women are rising to the moment as strong leaders. 

It also shows there’s more empathy in the workplace. Research shows that when leaders and HR teams communicate with empathy, employees feel valued and understood. Additionally, being open and understanding helps reduce anxiety and builds trust among employees. 

How to start fostering empathy.

Melanie Pump is the CFO at Brane Inc. and the author of Detox: Managing Insecurity in the Workplace. Over the last 15 years, Pump has held various managerial positions in her career. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was long-standing messaging that employees should leave personal issues at the door before heading into work. 

Now, as remote and hybrid work increasingly becomes part of the new normal and discussion for better work-life balance continues, Pump believes attempting to return to that former workplace mentality is “nearly impossible.”

“Not a single person will go through life without experiencing personal challenges,” Pump says. “Leaders must accept that employees will have good days and bad days.”

To navigate these moments, Pump says leaders must show empathy and understanding to team members going through difficult times. 

Where does one start for communicating with empathy? The best place to begin is by having a conversation. 

How to communicate with empathy.

Pump recommends creating open and honest general dialogue with your staff and hosting regular 1:1 meetings with your team members. Leaders may use these sessions to talk about work and to ask how employees are doing. Consistently having these meetings, and conversations, will help build a trusting relationship.

The regular 1:1s Pump has with her team have allowed her to step in and provide support to struggling members. She recalls a time when she noticed one of her team members wasn’t behaving like himself and used the 1:1 meeting to see how he was doing. The team member revealed he was having trouble sleeping because his child wasn’t sleeping. The lack of sleep was causing him to have trouble focusing on work. He felt stressed out about meeting his deadlines. 

Pump asked how she could help. Together they agreed to extend some of the deadlines on lower priority tasks to ease his burden. The result of the 1:1 was that the team member was able to better focus on priority assignments. Instead of spinning out from stress, he received support. 

After the meeting, Pump noticed something else changing in this team member. His loyalty and commitment to his work began increasing, thanks to the support and care she offered in their 1:1 meeting.

How to use empathy to hold team members to high work standards.

Debbie Winkelbauer is the CEO of Surf Search, a recruiting firm that works with healthcare and pharmaceutical candidates. Over the last two years, Winkelbauer has watched a radical shift in workplaces that choose to communicate with empathy. There is a decrease in turnover, increase in employee engagement and better work environments that benefit everyone.

Fostering empathy in the workplace means toeing a careful line. An employee that is struggling should be able to receive the support they need. However, communicating with empathy should never be abused as a “get out of jail free card” in the workplace. Struggling employees should get the help they need and deliver their best work.

“Empathy doesn’t mean giving someone a free pass,” Winkelbauer points out. “You can be empathetic to an employee’s feelings and situations and still hold them to a high work standard.”

If you find that your company policies are contributing to the problem, Winkelbauer says try being more flexible. Allowing for exceptions to the rule, depending on the team member’s specific circumstances, helps ease their personal burdens while allowing the team member to continue contributing their best work.

What happens when you lead with empathy.

As the CEO of SimplyBe. Agency, Jessica Zweig has recently expanded her team. The company went from a team of seven to nearly 20 full-time employees. Zweig prides herself on communicating with empathy as a leader, but in watching her company grow she asks the question on the mind of many growing businesses. How do you scale an empathetic culture that extends to everyone?

The answer goes beyond what more you can do. It is about looking at your management and executive teams and watching how they lead by example.

“If management is leading with empathy, I don’t need to be in every empathetic moment because it creates a ripple effect,” Zweig says.

Communicating with empathy requires a buy-in from everyone, from CEOs to interns, to live these values. It means hiring great people who believe in and want to be part of an empathetic workplace. 

Above all, empathy starts from the top.

“Empathy does start with you,” Zweig says. “You have to empower the power around you very intentionally. You have to make sure that you’re walking the walk and are indeed leading with love and being unapologetic about that.”

McKinsey & Company’s Women in the Workplace 2021 notes that as more companies prioritize employee mental health and well-being, there is an opportunity springing from the pandemic’s crisis. It is an opportunity to invest in building a more flexible, empathetic workplace.

What’s your no.1 piece of advice for leading with empathy at work? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss'ers!

This article was written by a Fairygodboss contributor.

Deborah Sweeney is the CEO of MyCorporation.com which provides online legal filing services for entrepreneurs and businesses, startup bundles that include corporation and LLC formation, registered agent services, DBAs, and trademark and copyright filing services. You can find MyCorporation on Twitter at @MyCorporation.

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