Show Compassion, Save Your Empathy

“What the world needs more than empathy is compassion. Empathy is feeling the pain and suffering of others. Compassion is acting to relieve the pain and suffering of others.” – Adam Grant

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to Adam Grant’s podcast while driving and the topic was mental health and how organizations can make an impact. At Horizon Point we’ve been having candid conversations about our own mental health in the last few months. As Mary Ila mentioned in her blog post Taking a Walkabout we have all been dealing with health issues as a result of our own stress and anxieties over the past year or so. For us, it all came to a halt during our first quarterly meeting of 2021. And as a result, we have each agreed to take a sabbatical to focus on ourselves. But at the same time, it has led us to conversations on how we can do the next right thing for our clients as well and help them focus on the mental health of their employees. 

The podcast with Adam really hit a chord with me. I am an empath, and this is where I really struggle with my mental health. As Adam explains it, having empathy means that you feel the pain and suffering of others. And I agree with him, empathy is exhausting. 

As Adam mentions in his podcast, when employees are struggling with their mental health, it has a significant impact on their performance. So how can employers show that they care about the mental health of their employees without exhausting themselves in the process? According to Adam, it’s through compassion, not empathy. 

I had never really thought about empathy and compassion together before. I think we often use the terms interchangeably, I know I did. But now I understand they are very different. 

Empathy is aimed at an individual and allows for a lot of bias. You will have more empathy for an individual you like than one you don’t. You may have more empathy for that star employee than you do for the one who struggles to meet deadlines. You have more empathy for the employee that reminds you of yourself. 

Compassion isn’t about how much you feel someone’s pain, it’s about how well you respond to help alleviate that pain. You can have all of the empathy in the world, feel someone else’s pain immensely, but not do anything to help them relieve that pain and suffering. Compassion is all about helping them move through that pain to the other side. 

So how can organizations create a compassionate culture? 

  • Allow sick days to be utilized for mental health- As Adam puts it allow “sad days.”
  • Make sure your health plan covers mental health, or offer an EAP
  • Take two minutes to ask employees how they are. If you notice an employee seems to be having a rough day, show them you care, don’t just try to avoid them. 
  • Ask employees if they need help, don’t wait for them to come to you. 
  • As Brene’ Brown would say, you have to be vulnerable. Be willing to put yourself out there too. At Horizon Point we have all been very vulnerable with each other, both before and now during our rejuvenation period. 

Creating a culture of compassion helps to keep your employees from the exhaustion of empathy, can increase productivity, improve employees’ mental health which can decrease your healthcare costs, and so much more.

How can you help your organization create a culture of compassion?  


Lorrie Coffey