On Losing Empathy

As the medical field has expanded, so has the awareness that professional stoicism is a mistaken virtue.  Patients often complain that doctors and nurses lack empathy and treat the disease, but not the patient.  The reality is that  doctors and nurses need to relieve stress that builds up as they deal with heavy caseloads and personal burn out.   For over 20 years the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare has provided a model — meeting rounds where medical professionals are able to share their emotional reactions and relieve the built up stress. The model has proved successful in hospitals and its usage is spreading to other care-giving professionals.

As service industries have exploded, so has the demand for more professional customer service responses.  Customers often complain that customer service staff lack empathy with the product or service problems customers need resolved.  While there may be any number of reasons for lack of empathy, such as poor hiring practices,  poor training, or unpleasant environment, there is also the stress build up that can impair empathy.  Customer service responders may not lose a patient on the operating table, but they, like doctors, can stress over personal failures, heavy workloads and a barrage of angry customers.

Most often,  we recognize the need for emotional support and respond to critical incidents with immediacy and assistance.  For example, after one of our branch banks experienced a robbery (where the staff upon entry were met with armed men and made to sit on the floor of the vault), we contacted a psychologist who met with the group the same day. She then met with each individually over time, as needed, and for as long as needed.

What often goes unheeded is stress build up that can affect even the best customer service employees and their managers.  IF over time, they respond to endless, unsolved customer complaints,  IF over time, they continue to work short staffed, IF over time, they receive only negative or no feedback, and so on, THEN you can expect stress build up and loss of empathy for customers and customer problems.

The Schwartz rounds provide a model for all service industries.   Rounds are voluntary meetings where specific stress situations are  discussed.  Offshoots of  rounds include meetings where feelings — anger, frustration, fear — are shared to reduce emotional upheavals.  Additionally, training sessions helped physicians learn methods for dealing with personal stress and reducing negative reactions.

If you want your managers and employees to show empathy to your customers,  you must provide outlets for stress build up, regular meeting discussions to share common feelings and reactions, and training that will help increase empathy specific to your customer situations.

About mcgntr

About Ann I was lucky and grew up in the beautiful Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts surrounded by the arts, industry, literature, and family. I had a great education-- undergraduate work at Caldwell College and my masters at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where I began business life as Training Assistant. Returning east, I continued in the training profession, and ‘fell’ into Human Resources - first, Recruiting and Employment, Director of Human Resources and finally Senior Vice President, Human Resources and Training. I bowed out of the corporate world with the white collar layoffs in early ‘90s – and started a new venture McGill Enterprises: HelpQuick Human Resources Advisory & Training Services. I have enjoyed great opportunities - publishing 3 training books, mentoring HR professionals, creating a wide variety of training programs, writing scripts, and becoming an adjunct professor.
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2 Responses to On Losing Empathy

  1. hrhardball says:

    So I was ahead of my time when I had a mini “heavy bag” in my office for closed-door “venting” sessions? Great insight, I enjoyed the post!

    • mcgntr says:

      Oh, those closed door venting sessions! I think we have growled behind closed doors. What I found interesting about the Schwartz rounds — they were for everyone, not just those willing to knock on HR’s door. I think too often we forget about our front line people who can take it on the chin daily. Thanks for your comment.

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