‘Extreme Empathy’ in the Workplace

Writer: Rachel Vogel Quinn
Photographer: Duane Tinkey

Rachel Vogel Quinn

The doodle on my colleague’s whiteboard was me—lying in bed, a stream of ZZZs zigzagging from my nose and mouth.

For more than a decade, I have been coping with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and chronic migraines, all while trying to work full time and fulfill the career ambitions I had planned as a straight-A student. The process has not been pretty, and I have spent a lot of workdays in bed, not snoring like in the sketch, but moaning in physical and emotional pain.

When I saw that drawing eight years ago, a group of my co-workers were huddled together in one of their offices, snickering. They didn’t know I had come up behind to join the fun. After a single glance at the caricature, I snuck away to sob alone in a bathroom stall.

I left my role at that organization soon after the incident, although I liked the job and had been working closely with my boss and human resources to set a schedule that allowed me to keep contributing to the team.

In the years since that day, I’ve had many other co-workers and supervisors—some judgmental and cold, others kind and supportive. My ability to thrive in a work environment has been largely determined by how the people around me react to my fickle physical and mental health.

Casting Judgment

I’m still not used to being seen as the “problem child” of the workplace. In fact, before my health deteriorated, I was myself guilty of judging people I considered mediocre students or employees—anyone our society would not label a “high achiever.” Now, I regret my eagerness to cast judgment on other people, even if it was just in my head.

As a result of this hard-won wisdom, I’ve committed myself to what I call “extreme empathy.” In truth, it’s not really extreme; that’s just an adjective to remind myself to move beyond our society’s ho-hum expression of empathy, a lukewarm compassion that’s often directed only toward those we like or agree with.

I think of extreme empathy as a blanket thrown over another’s shoulders. It obscures differences that would otherwise divide us and serves as a kind of embrace, an acknowledgment of the other person’s humanity. No matter how annoying—or abhorrent—I might find their behavior, their particular combination of traits is unique, as with every human being who has ever lived. That in itself is a rationale for mutual respect, and even reverence.

Practicing extreme empathy is an ongoing battle for me. I still find myself enraged by reckless drivers, people on the other side of the political spectrum, parents who let their kids run wild in a busy store. I try to step back and remember: We all deal with trials and tribulations, pain and guilt, stress and fatigue, loneliness and existential angst. In short, we are all victims of the vagaries of life on this planet. But we are also its heroes.

Co-worker Expectations

Of course, this truth applies to our co-workers, too, though we often fail to recognize that in our stress-fueled, smartphone-addicted digital world. We expect one another to be available for every meeting, to answer every email immediately—even on nights and weekends. We want our colleagues to prioritize our projects and proposals over everything else in their lives.

The people around us may fail to meet our expectations for dozens of reasons: mental health concerns, medical problems, family and domestic issues, financial struggles, or just a serious lack of enough hours in a day.

The stigma surrounding mental health is alive and well in the modern workplace. According to BusinessSolver’s “2020 State of Workplace Empathy” report, 64% of employees say reaching out to HR or leadership about a mental health issue could negatively affect their job security. And 76% of employees say companies view someone with a mental health issue as a burden.

Yes, our co-workers can be burdens, as I have been many times throughout my career. Our colleagues slow us down, get in the way, miss urgent deadlines, take days off during big projects. But they also make us laugh, pitch in when we’re overworked, offer insightful ideas, and bring cookies for the break room.

The next time you find yourself silently cursing a co-worker, take a moment to ask yourself: What might be going on in this person’s life? What’s the worst thing that could happen if our project was delayed another day or two? What strengths does this person bring to the team?

Accepting Limitations

Now that I’m self-employed, I don’t disappoint people as much as I used to. However, my physical and mental health do force me to reschedule meetings with clients and push back deadlines. After all these years, these mini-failures are still sources of shame.

I will probably always be haunted by the depiction of me on that whiteboard. But I’ve slowly learned that my worth as a person—and even as a professional—is not directly related to how long it takes me to respond to an email.

Maybe I need to replace that picture of me with one closer to reality. A sketch of myself surrounded by friends, clients, collaborators and former co-workers. I lean on them, and they lean on me. We keep each other upright over rough terrain.

All of us could benefit from trying to reproduce that group portrait in our daily lives. Some days, we will fail. Other days, our colleagues will. But we are more than the sum of our faults. We are multipliers of each other’s strengths. That is a formula worth displaying on our whiteboards.

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