Return to work interview: 5 strategies to improve your empathy skills

Continuing our focus on the return to work interview, this blog will look at the topic of empathy, how it is different to sympathy and why it is so important in the workplace.

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Empathy and sympathy intertwine constantly in our day-to-day lives, yet they each have a very different outcome. The dictionary definition of empathy is‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. Sympathy is defined as‘feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune’. Sympathy tends to be the default emotional reaction, to show you are sorry for how somebody is feeling. Empathy requires more thought and a deeper understanding of exactly what the other person has gone through. It puts you in their shoes and shows that you have ‘heard’ them and that you are supportive of them. 

Health and wellbeing professionals often use empathy as a tool to open up difficult or sensitive conversations. It empowers the person as they realise you are ‘walking alongside’ them, not just pitying them. An employee returning to work after a period of long-term sickness absence will need a positive and constructive return to work interview.  If, as a manager, you can use empathy to show that you understand what they have been through and that you understand their concerns about returning to work, you will have a more positive outcome in supporting and integrating that employee back into the workplace.

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Referring your employee to an Occupational Health provider will have been the first step to getting an understanding of how the employee’s health will affect them back at work. Following that, and in preparation for the return to work interview, here are our 5 tips to improve your empathy skills:

  1. Do your homework. As with all return to work interviews preparation is paramount. This will demonstrate you are fully focussed on supporting the employee. Use your occupational health report, familiarise yourself with the history of the sickness absence and recommendations. What is the long-term impact for the employee? Do you understand fully the implications of any adjustments required? Is there a plan in place to get the adjustments implemented? Have you researched all the guidance that has been suggested by your occupational health report?

    Does the employee’s case qualify for Access To Work support?

  2. Walk in their shoes. Showing empathy means taking someone’s feelings into consideration and understanding their journey, even if you disagree with the route / treatment / approach they have taken. Before the interview, put yourself in their shoes and think about what changes/challenges they are facing. Imagine how it must be for them. 

  3. Practise makes perfect. Be aware through your day-to-day life, of how you use empathy and sympathy and notice the different responses to each.

    Here are some examples of empathy: 

    It is hard, you must be worried / exhausted / frustrated.

    Sometimes these things don’t really make sense.

    I can hear in your voice that _________ has been really difficult for you.

    I would be asking the same questions if I were in your situation.

    This kind of thing is never easy.

    I am on your side / I will be with you through this.

    That must be infuriating / so frustrating for you.

  4. Listen carefully. Find a private, quiet space without any distractions. If it’s more comfortable this could be away from the office. Put phones and laptops away. Listen with your whole body: be still, smile and nod reassuringly, maintain eye contact and be aware of your hand movements and gestures. Keep the range of your movements to a minimum so the full focus of your attention is on them. Ask open questions and listen carefully to their responses, use the 2 ears – 1 mouth rule: repeat back key information and use empathy in your responses. 

  5. Take notes. Make sure the employee is happy for you to take notes at the beginning of the meeting and offer to send them a copy. Write down what needs actioning, reviewing or researching and follow-up the action points taking any worries or concerns into consideration. 

    Do you have any other advice or tips to share? How have you used your empathy skills to support and welcome an employee back after a period of long-term sickness absence?