COVID-19, Higher Ed, Public Health

The pandemic and the need for empathy

October 4, 2021 |6:37 min read

Has the pandemic sapped our storehouse of empathy?

In short: After 18 months of uncertainty, loss and pain, it feels as though all the world is on edge. To get through this, we must tap into our reserves of empathy and find ways to help ease each other’s – and our own – stress.

As I read online news, talk with other deans at UNC-Chapel Hill and elsewhere, listen to faculty, staff and students, and read emails of people in distress, I am struck by how many people are in pain. There’s the pain of loss of family and friends to COVID-19 and other conditions, and of having managed too many memorials and dealt with too much of the burden of what’s left behind. There’s the pain of fatigue, from managing families during uncertainty, and from the challenges of paying attention to the persons in front of us and the ones on Zoom.

For health care workers, it’s the pain of exhaustion and dashed expectations, as we seemed to be moving toward the post-pandemic world and then were reeled in by surge after surge, always with inadequate resources and changing challenges. Now, it’s the soaring demand for travel nurses and the sheer inequity of salaries, benefits and assignments.

For 18 months, we’ve been living with uncertainty, always in a state of psychological alertness and, for those in the helping professions, where I also place university faculty and staff members, working to hold up others and oneself. People frequently use words like exhaustion, burnout and tired. They sometimes write apologetic notes for losing their temper and lashing out, when they never would have lost their tempers in the pre-pandemic world. It feels as though all the world is on edge, and it plays out everywhere.

A recent article in Forbes says that “people are experiencing multiple kinds of stress, and data suggests it is affected by the pandemic – and the ways our lives and our work have been turned upside down.” The article cites negative trends in both home and work life, including in job performance, turnover and customer experience:

A study published in the Academy of Management Journal found when people are on the receiving end of rudeness at work, their performance suffers and they are less likely to help others. And a new study at Georgetown University found workplace incivility is rising and the effects are extensive, including reduced performance and collaboration, deteriorating customer experiences and increased turnover.

Empathy | Definition of Empathy by Merriam-Webster

The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

I’ve observed the behavior of people near and far, and I fear that our empathy has taken a hit during the pandemic. At Gillings, we have made it a mantra to treat people with kindness, adaptability and flexibility. But as we returned to campus, and millions of others returned to worksites around the country, it seems as though fatigue and frustration often are giving way to anger and impatience – anger at the unvaccinated who are causing the pandemic to linger, and at people who can’t quite seem to pick themselves up and move on, and at organizational leaders who are requiring workers to return to pre-pandemic schedules. I am glad we were given permission to participate in a university pilot program that allows employees and supervisors more agency over workers’ locations and schedules. I doubt we ever will return completely to work as it was. But still, we can only do so much.

We’ve been through – and still are in – a global crisis. It is a traumatic experience, and some people are experiencing post-traumatic stress. There have been so many losses – human lives, jobs, belief in a future, financial stability, and the world as we knew it. Social and other media have reported tantrums at school board meetings, abusive behavior on airplanes, acting out by professionals who should know better, and stronger words than needed by some faculty members. I do not want to take away from the many acts of kindness shown by so many, but I am worried that the pandemic has sapped our storehouse of empathy. We must find the reserve to get through this with compassion and empathy. Otherwise, we risk losing our humanity.

What can we do?

The biblical “do unto others” is a good starting place, although it seems so simple as to be a cliché. What does it feel like to be a faculty or staff member trying to juggle the demands of parenting and work? While I juggle a lot, I do not have children or, sadly, parents, but I try to listen to what people say about their lives, to imagine others’ situations and grant them grace when problems arise. I’m just another person trying to do the right things by people, and I certainly do not get it right all the time. I try, though, to really listen to and absorb people’s personal stories and act with compassion on that knowledge. People want to be heard.

We’ve learned that schedule flexibility can make a big difference, especially during challenging times, and we encourage and support it, according to our organization’s rules and guidelines. People need away time more than ever. Among our immediate office team, we encourage people to use their vacation and personal time and to take mental health breaks.

So that our written communications don’t compound recipients’ stress, we can reread our messages before sending, applying the “triple filter test” for truth, goodness or kindness, and necessity or usefulness in mind. Faculty members can reread their messages to students, especially. Are we giving our students the benefit of the doubt? Is the assignment necessary? Could students have more time? Are we making assumptions about certain students? Could we coordinate across different classes to make sure that assignments are not all coming due at the same time?

We may say we are back to normal, but we are still in a pandemic, and there’s nothing normal about that. Many students are feeling stressed to an unusual extent. We must balance what we think they must know with what they must do to maintain their health, especially their mental health.

I think empathy is really important, and I think only when our clever brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we achieve our full potential. –Jane Goodall

The Forbes article mentioned earlier had some good advice for leaders that applies to everyone who interacts with others in their daily lives:

Leaders can demonstrate empathy in two ways. First, they can consider someone else’s thoughts through cognitive empathy (“If I were in his/her position, what would I be thinking right now?”). Leaders can also focus on a person’s feelings using emotional empathy (“Being in his/her position would make me feel ___”). But leaders will be most successful not just when they personally consider others, but when they express their concerns and inquire about challenges directly, and then listen to employees’ responses.

Students can apply the same approach to faculty and staff members who also are feeling stressed. After all, they are people too, and they bring their own stressors to work.

A final suggestion is to find solitude to get rejuvenated, to go inward to be able to reach out to others with more emotional intelligence and compassion. This may seem difficult or impossible when daily schedules are crowded with obligations, assignments, meetings and deadlines, but it’s an investment that can generate high yields for our own well-being and how well we show up for others. Listen to this interview by Krista Tippett, in “On Being,” with Steven Batchelor, a teacher of Buddhism, meditation and other skills, who discusses the benefits of solitude. I found it uplifting and energizing.

Banner image by John Hain from Pixabay.

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.