Using Empathy and Resilience in the Workplace to Find Purpose

By: Jennifer Ayres, Founding Partner

It goes without saying that the past year and a half has challenged us all. As individuals, and as a collective, we have grappled with a global pandemic, great loss, racial injustice, economic instability, and an election that tested our democracy. The pandemic has also brought out the best in us: medical advances, empathy and resilience in the workplace, selfless acts, and newfound understanding that we are all humans.

So, as we swing into summer, with an increase in vaccinations, looser health restrictions, and talk of returning to offices again, I find myself asking: what now? Do we just go back to the way things were before Covid?

Maybe we shouldn’t.

The Survive and Thrive podcast tracked 19 stories and perspectives on how Covid 19 created an imperative for change and what leaders and organizations did to respond to that change. Guests revealed their struggles and their triumphs during the past year, but especially, their lessons learned. Experts pointed to the three most important qualities for not just surviving but thriving in this crisis. No matter the field or job, almost every episode circled back to using empathy and resilience to find purpose in the workplace.

Why Does Finding Purpose Matter?  

First, what is purpose? If your job is the “what” of your career and life, purpose is the “why.” If you can discover why you do what you do, it can bring a sense of understanding. Finding purpose matters on both the individual and team scale. In hard times, such as the pandemic, purpose can act as a North Star to yourself, and an entire organization. You can find and define your purpose in the mission statement of the company: what does your organization hope to change and why? 

Essentially, purpose gives you something to strive for, and motivation to do it. More importantly, purpose can instill meaning and from meaning, we can find happiness. When the seas are choppy, you can look up and follow your North Star.

Using Empathy in the Workplace 

But how can you impart a sense of purpose in the organization and in your individual team members? You can update your mission statement, and even have team meetings about the company’s core values—but does that really instill a deep sense of purpose? Not necessarily. 

While there are practical steps you can take to be transparent about the company’s overall sense of purpose, at the end of the day, purpose is something people experience. It’s about connection and commitment, which employees feel when their organization shows them empathy.

Virtual work forced us all to behave differently, especially as leaders. Everyone was in the same boat, dealing with children interrupting Zoom meetings or loud pets in the background. It also became a necessity to ask each other “how are you?” 

While empathy in intra-personal exchanges seems manageable, how can we scale it to the whole company? Businesses can show empathy in supporting their employees needs and lifestyle requirements.

Glassdoor recently published its 2023 Best Places to Work. Not surprisingly, the common theme amongst the choices were companies that fostered an empathetic and understanding workplace: flexible work arrangements, career progression support and learning, unlimited paid-time-off, coaching and mentorship, great healthcare, and 401K savings programs, to name a few. These companies responded to the needs of their employees and it’s returning the investment tenfold.

Using Resilience in the Workplace 

In the past year, there were times where we all had to turn inward and find our resilience. 

Maybe there were days you were exhausted from supervising virtual school for your children while trying to get your own work done. Maybe you had to take care of a loved one. Whatever the case, all of us found our resilience—we had no other choice.

The Survive and Thrive podcast invited on guests of all backgrounds and experiences, and all told incredible stories of resilience in the workplace.

On an organizational level, resilience can be the difference between a company going under or staying afloat. Resiliency not only ensures survival, but it can even be the difference between a company coming out of a crisis stronger. But how can we embed resiliency, something that oftentimes feels very personal, into the bedrock of a team or company? 

A resilient organization is a flexible one. If “unprecedented” was the top word of 2020, “pivot” was a close second—and for good reason, too. In this time of great change and even crisis, organizations and people had to pivot quickly to meet the challenges ahead. If a company can pivot, it can survive. If it can survive, it becomes resilient, which allows it to thrive. 

However, we don’t need a once-in-a-century pandemic to force us to pivot. Companies that allow for flexibility in their business model are able to adapt faster to any change, like new management, new goals or structures. As the saying goes, the only constant is change. So even as the pandemic is lifting in the U.S., change will continue to occur. Therefore, it is in the interest of every organization to allow for that flexibility.

Guests of the Survive and Thrive podcast even more specifically pointed to agility. Agility allows you to adapt well and to adapt quickly. In particular, workplaces that welcome new ideas, a diverse team and encourage dialogue amongst employees found that necessary agility. Organizations that can adapt fast and well find their own communal resilience. 

That shared resilience allows you to keep going, keep striving, and keep thriving.

As remote work ends for many of us, the new practices we learned don’t have to. Using empathy and resilience, we can find purpose in the workplace and that can be the difference between sinking or staying afloat.

Using empathy, we can build connection and commitment. We can build a resilient team that can trim the sails to meet the changing winds. More importantly, we can build a resilient team to navigate towards our North Star—our purpose.