Empathy under stress

I’ll start this post with a short disclaimer: I had an amazing break over the Christmas/New Year period and feel almost completely clear of stress, so I’m making a gross assumption that you all did too.

Before the year really kicks off and the stress of work and life begin to weigh upon us, I thought I’d provide a brief insight into how the stress hormone, Cortisol, plays a huge role in our ability to empathise with others and how this might create a challenge at work and at home.

Empathy is a skill. It takes practice. It doesn’t come naturally to everyone and if all of my years in HR have taught me anything, it’s that empathy can be incredibly rare in the workplace.

When we’re stressed, our ability to empathise with others can disappear altogether. We become insular and selfish, concerned only with our own wellbeing and ability to complete the task at hand. The reason this happens is because the system our bodies are equipped with to deal with stress hasn’t changed in millions of years. It triggers a release of Cortisol (and Adrenaline) into our body. It sharpens some senses and completely shut off others. This was designed to keep us safe when danger arose – like sabre-toothed tigers, not Karen from accounts.

I’m sure you can all think of a time you’ve snapped at someone who asked for help when you were going through a particularly stressful period. I know I can. That’s what gave me the idea to write this! I mean, when you’re in self-protection mode, how are you supposed to care about anyone else? As if their issue is as bad as yours!

So the challenge then, be more empathetic in stressful situations. I know I just said that our reaction to stress is driven internally by a system as old as our existence, so I understand your hesitance here. What I also said, though, it that empathy takes practice. It’s a skill.

To be more understanding, more accepting and better humans when under stress, we must practice empathy when we are not under stress. Seek to understand. Ask curious questions. Learn. Practice this skill and improve your ability to relate to people so when Karen from accounts comes looking for data so she can finalise her report before the deadline, you might just react a little more positively.

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