Has the pandemic weakened our stock of empathy?
In short: After 18 months of uncertainty, loss and pain, the whole world seems to be in tension. To overcome this, we need to tap into our reserves of empathy and find ways to help relieve each other and personal stress.
As I read news online, talk to other UNC-Chapel Hill principals and elsewhere, listen to faculty, staff and students, and read emails from people in need, I am struck by how many people are suffering. There is the pain of losing family and friends to COVID-19 and other conditions, and of handling too many memorials and facing too much the burden of what is left behind. There is the pain of fatigue, of managing families during uncertainty, and of the challenges of paying attention to the people in front of us and those on Zoom.
For healthcare workers, it’s the pain of exhaustion and disappointed expectations, as it felt like we were moving into the post-pandemic world and then got swept up in wave after wave, always with inadequate resources and changing challenges. Now, it’s the surge request for travel nurses and the sheer unfairness of salaries, benefits and assignments.
For 18 months we have been living in uncertainty, always in a state of psychological readiness and, for those in the helping professions, where I also place teachers and university staff, working to support others and themselves. People often use words like exhaustion, burnt Other tired out. Sometimes they write apology notes for losing their temper and going wild, when they would never have lost their temper in the pre-pandemic world. It seems that the whole world is on the edge, and it is played everywhere.
A recent item in Forbes states that “people are experiencing different types of stress and the data suggests that it is affected by the pandemic and the ways in which our lives and our work have been turned upside down.” The article cites negative trends in both home and work life, including job performance, turnover, and customer experience:
A study published in Academy of Management Journal When people are victims of rudeness at work, their performance suffers and they are less likely to help others. And a new study in Georgetown University found that workplace incivility is on the rise and the effects are extensive, including reduced performance and collaboration, worsening customer experiences, and increased revenue.
The action of understanding, being aware, being sensitive and indirectly experiencing the feelings, thoughts and experience of another in the past or present without the feelings, thoughts and experience being fully communicated in an objectively explicit way.
I have observed the behavior of people near and far and I fear our empathy took a hit during the pandemic. At Gillings, we’ve made it a mantra to treat people with kindness, adaptability, and flexibility. But when we are back on campus and millions of others have returned to construction sites across the country, it seems fatigue and frustration are often giving way to anger and impatience – rage at the unvaccinated that is causing the pandemic to persist. and to people who cannot recover and move forward, and to organizational leaders who require workers to return to pre-pandemic hours. I am delighted that we have been granted permission to participate in a university pilot program that allows employees and supervisors more agency than workers’ positions and schedules. I doubt we will ever fully return to work as it was. But still, we can only do so much.
We have gone through – and still are – a global crisis. It is a traumatic experience and some people are experiencing post-traumatic stress. There have been so many losses: lives, jobs, confidence in a future, financial stability and the world as we knew it. Social media and other media have reported tantrums at school board meetings, abusive behavior on planes, acting by professionals they should know better, and louder than necessary words from some faculty members. I don’t want to deprive myself of the many acts of kindness shown by so many, but I am concerned that the pandemic has weakened our warehouse of empathy. We must find the reservoir to overcome all of this with compassion and empathy. Otherwise we risk losing our humanity.
What can we do?
The biblical “do to others” is a good place to start, even if it sounds so simple that it sounds like a cliché. How does it feel to be a teacher or staff member trying to juggle the needs of parents and work? Although I juggle a lot, I have no children or, unfortunately, no parents, but I try to listen to what people say about their life, to imagine the situations of others and to grant them grace when problems arise. I’m just another person trying to get people right, and I certainly don’t always do them well. I try, however, to really listen and absorb people’s personal stories and act compassionately on that knowledge. People want to be heard.
We have learned that schedule flexibility can make a big difference, especially during difficult times, and we encourage and support it, according to our organization’s rules and guidelines. People need time more than ever. In our immediate office team, we encourage people to use vacation and personal time and take mental health breaks.
So that our written communications do not aggravate the stress of the recipients, we can reread our messages before sending them, applying the “triple filter test“For truth, goodness or kindness, and necessity or usefulness in mind. Faculty members can re-read their messages to students, in particular. Do we give our students the benefit of the doubt? Is it necessary? Could students have more time? Are we guessing about some students? Could we coordinate between different classes to make sure that assignments do not all finish at the same time?
We could say that we are back to normal, but we are still in a pandemic and there is nothing normal about that. Many students feel unusually stressed. We need to balance what we think they need to know with what they need to do to maintain their health, especially their mental health.
I think empathy is really important, and I think only when our intelligent brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we reach our full potential. –Jane Goodall
The Forbes article mentioned earlier contained some good advice for leaders that applies to everyone who interacts with others in their daily life:
Leaders can show empathy in two ways. First, they can consider someone else’s thoughts through cognitive empathy (“If I were in his position, what would I think right now?”). Leaders can also focus on a person’s feelings using emotional empathy (“Being in his position would make me feel ___”). But leaders will be more successful not only when they personally consider others, but also when they voice their concerns and inquire directly about challenges, and then listen to employee responses.
Students can apply the same approach to faculty and staff members who are feeling stressed. After all, they too are people and bring their stressors to work.
A final suggestion is to find solitude to rejuvenate, to go within to be able to reach others with more emotional intelligence and compassion. This may seem difficult or impossible when daily schedules are crowded with commitments, assignments, meetings and deadlines, but it is an investment that can generate high returns for our well-being and for the way we present ourselves to others. To listen this interview by Krista Tippett, in “On Being,” with Steven Batchelor, teacher of Buddhism, meditation and other skills, discussing the benefits of solitude. I found it uplifting and energizing.