Empathy has become a popular workplace concept, underlying new methods of leadership, teamwork and company culture.
It’s also one way safety professionals can help their organizations adopt high-reliability practices.
“In healthcare, we’re in this constant pursuit of high reliability,” says Cory Worden, M.S., CSP, CSHM, CHSP, past administrator of our Healthcare Practice Specialty. “We want to be able to account for safe work practices and safe work conditions and we want to develop engagement and participation so everybody is involved and plays a role in developing those practices.”
In a recent webinar, “The Importance of Empathy to Safety,” Worden and Rachel Michael, M.S.,CPE, CHSP, Ergonomics Practice Specialty past administrator, explained how safety professionals can integrate empathy into every level of their safety management systems to improve safety and reduce incidents.
Empathy in the Workplace
Empathy is defined as the ability to share and understand the feelings of another.
Michael breaks down how to use empathy in the workplace: “I’m going to listen for what’s happened; I’m going to check my own biases; I’m going to hear about the lived experience of others; then I’m going to use all that to inform how we make a change.”
One example Worden often shares: At a hospital, patient mobility equipment — which reduces or eliminates strain on staff who must move patients — was not being used. Rather than simply telling staff to use it or writing them up for not using it, the safety team asked the staff what was going on. They learned that no one had been properly trained to use the equipment, it was hard to access behind IV poles in a closet and there was no process for laundering and changing the slings. By identifying and fixing these issues, the safety team increased employee confidence in the machine and improved safety at the facility.
This empathetic approach, implemented across the safety management program, helped reduce the hospital’s recordable incident rate from between eight and nine to less than six.
Opportunities For Empathy in a Safety Program
When designing safety programs and systems, Worden and Michael believe there are multiple opportunities to use empathy. Here are a few examples:
- Designate a safety committee. This committee consults on, supports and makes recommendations for changes needed to create a safety culture. All employees need to be able to communicate those elements to leadership, Worden says.
- Conduct a hazard analysis. This is a great opportunity to hear perspectives from actual employees dealing with these hazards. This allows you to understand what they’re facing.
- Risk assessment: Think about how subjectively the general public views risks such as COVID-19. Make sure you’re not being subjective about risk. It’s important to break issues down scientifically “so that we can understand the hazard itself, or the threat, the frequency of exposure, the potential severity, and then be able to make recommendations and implement controls free of any kind of personal bias,” Worden says. “If we don’t have the empathy to know that our subjective opinion can impact that negatively, it can be a bad thing.”
- Hazard controls: “We want to understand that one person’s needs are not necessarily less than the organization’s,” Worden says. If you don’t take the time to address an individual’s hazards, you may signal that you don’t care enough about safety, and you may miss a hazard that will eventually impact more people.
Empathy and Safety Regulations
Empathy isn’t just good practice; it’s a way to support several safety regulations.
- Empathy aligns with the “psychologically safe workplace” outlined in ISO 45003:2021, which offers guidelines for managing psychosocial risk within a safety management system. “It talks about . . . how the need for leaders to consider empathy factors into having a high-reliable organization, good business metrics and good relationships, and make everything part of our safety systems,” Michael says.
- The Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services (CLAS) standards also rely on empathy. “If you look at how we as safety and health professionals are defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we are healthcare professionals. As such, we have some regulatory language around CLAS,” Michael continues.
- Michael also notes that one OSHA requirement [1910.30(d)] says employers have to provide training in a manner that employees understand, “using language and vocabulary that is understood by employees.”
Potential Errors in Practicing Empathy
While it may seem that practicing empathy is relatively straightforward, there are a few ways it can go wrong. Here are a few mistakes to avoid:
- Don’t be condescending. While safety professionals might be completely knowledgeable about and comfortable with health standards, not everyone is. Don’t “come crashing down on them,” Worden says. They may not know they’re doing something wrong.
- Don’t make assumptions. We shouldn’t assume leaders know what’s happening in a safety management system. Talking to leaders assuming they know what you do can cause friction, Worden says.
- Avoid a lack of transparency. If we’re not providing valid and reliable updates to our teams, that can also cause friction, Worden says.
- Don’t gaslight workers. Perceptions may differ in relation to hazards, so don’t dismiss concerns as invalid. Take the time to listen, talk through them and determine the best course forward.
- Avoid professional development embargoes. “Make sure employees have a chance to learn and grow,” Worden says.
Just as it’s important to listen to others’ experiences, it’s important to listen to your own as well. We are living through challenging times and that can make expressing empathy more difficult. Recognize when you’re at your limit and take care of yourself.
“We’ve seen our own profession challenged in the last couple years as many of us felt overwhelmed with our own jobs . . . fear and tiredness,” Michael says. “We really need to consider our own abilities in the moment. If we need to step away or take a break, that’s part of our own leadership and mental health progression to be able to understand how that might affect our ability to have empathy in our interactions.”
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