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Mental Health Week: How Businesses Can Practice Empathy in the Workplace

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

Every week, at least 500,000 Canadians miss work due to mental illness and the resulting personal, workplace and economic impacts can be devastating.

May 2nd marks the beginning of The Canadian Mental Health Association’s (CMHA) Mental Health Week. Since 1951, CMHA has been marking this week to build awareness and rally support from schools, communities, businesses, and leaders around mental health. This year, the focus of Mental Health Week is on empathy, or in other words, the ability to understand someone else’s feelings. To us at Headway, this is an important theme, because in our mission to support healthy minds at work, we know that understanding how someone else is feeling is often an important first step.

We spoke with workplace mental health expert, Jordan Friesen about his tips for practicing empathy in the workplace. As President of Mindset Mental Health Strategy Inc., Jordan supports leaders across a diverse range of industries to meaningfully move the needle on mental health in their workplace. Here is what Jordan told us about building empathy at work:

Mental fitness is not simply the absence of symptoms; it’s about being able to flourish in our relationships at work and elsewhere, feeling connected and purposeful, and responding to challenges in adaptive ways. As with physical fitness, there are practices and lifestyle choices that are critical for maintaining and enhancing one’s mental wellbeing.

Empathy isn’t just a mushy emotional skill.

It’s the ability to place ourselves in someone else’s reality and can help us do a number of different things:

  • Understand a colleague’s reactions to a huge variety of circumstances (work-related and otherwise)

  • Assess our own behaviours and their impact

  • Respond effectively when employees disclose emotional or personal issues

  • Effectively map a customer or client journey

  • Identify and manage conflict when it presents itself

  • Even negotiate, influence, or sell

A precursor to empathy is emotional literacy.

In general, most of us have an underdeveloped emotional vocabulary made up of sad, mad, and glad. To use empathy effectively, we need to be able to expand our emotional vocabulary first to better capture and understand the nuanced emotional states of others.

Empathy is not the same as sympathy.

This is really about the perspective from which you’re responding. If you’re relating to someone through your own experience (e.g., I can imagine how you feel because I felt x-y-z when the same thing happened to me) you’re not demonstrating empathy.

Empathy is about more than perspective taking.

It has a few components:

  • The ability to listen intently for the message behind the words (and infer an emotional state)

  • The ability to feel as someone else may be feeling

  • The ability to convey your understanding back to them – this is the piece that most people miss. Could be conveyed through words or even body language, the empathy involves communication back to the other person

Some suggestions for concrete ways to build empathy in the workplace:

  • Practice naming the way you’re feeling – build your own emotional literacy

  • Empathy Mapping – before a meeting or 1:1 take a few minutes, write someone’s name on a blank piece of paper, and then write down everything you can imagine about what’s going on around them that day. Where are they working? Do they have family or pets around? What have they been working on? What meeting did they just come from? And then consider how that may be impacting their internal state. You’ll be able to enter that conversation with a greater appreciation of their perspective and that will make empathy easier.

  • Tune out distractions in-the-moment. Empathy takes a high degree of concentration and focus. Minimize multi-tasking and give people your full attention.

  • Consider the lens of situational humility. This is a practical application of empathy – understanding when others know more or are more capable of doing something than you, regardless of hierarchy or position. If another person knows more or is more capable than you, let them lead.

By adopting some of Jordan’s best practices this Mental Health Week and beyond, we can all become more empathetic in our daily work lives. And in practicing empathy, we can not only support our colleagues when things are going well, we can also know how best to offer them help when they need it.


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