Merge's Blog

Go beyond empathy; compassion in the workplace is what really matters!

compassion in the workplaceAlexandra Chisholm is a physical therapist, specializing in the care of complex burn survivors. She has a special interest and education in pain management, and is, in her words, passionate about the Science and Art of alleviating pain and suffering.  I am very lucky to say that she is also my best friend since our high school days.  She recently wrote this post on LinkedIn about compassion, and her recent experiences with both the healthcare system and the RCMP detachment in Campbell River BC.  I think the lessons here are very applicable to the subject of compassion in the workplace.

Please, before you read the rest of today’s blog post, read this link below.  I promise my blog post will make more sense if you read her post first, and then come back here to continue reading what I have written.

Where has the care in healthcare gone?

Now that you’ve read Alex’s post …

compassion in the workplaceSo I’m assuming you’ve read her post and have come back to continue.  The “lifelong dear friend” she refers to is my husband Al Sunderji, who very suddenly and unexpectedly passed away on August 27, 2022, just over 12 weeks ago, while we both were on a short holiday in Campbell River BC.  The “friend who is of short stature” is me.  Alex flew out immediately to be with me, and what we both experienced during that horrible day and the days following was sympathy, empathy, and compassion.  And the one that really mattered …. compassion.

Given Alex’s great interest and passion in the topic of compassion, I asked her for the difference in meaning between the three words – sympathy, empathy, and compassion.  Here’s what she told me.

  • Sympathy is when you feel sorry for the person who has experienced misfortune.  It usually translates into pity, and while it may be an admirable emotion, it does nothing for the individual who is in physical or emotional pain.
  • Empathy is when you actually try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to feel what they are feeling.  It goes beyond sympathy, and when you acknowledge the pain being felt by the other person, it can be helpful to them.
  • Compassion however, is when you not only experience empathy, but you take action to alleviate the other person’s pain and suffering, whether physical or emotional.  It could be holding someone’s hand and sitting in silence, or bringing a warm blanket, or offering a meal.

On August 27 and the heartbreaking days and weeks following, I have experienced sympathy, empathy, and compassion.  And I can tell you, firsthand, it is the compassion that makes the difference.  The Campbell River RCMP detachment showed compassion.  Some others, not so much.

This is SO applicable to the world of work!

Now Alex works in healthcare, but these concepts are so easily translatable to the world of work, and the topic of compassion in the workplace.

I have repeatedly spoken and written about the importance of empathy in leaders, even going as far as to say that it is the most critical leadership skill in the post-pandemic workplace.

I am now officially changing that to “Compassion in the workplace is the most critical leadership skill in the post-pandemic world.”  When leaders show compassion, they build employee engagement and loyalty.

If one of your staff is facing eldercare issues, what can you do that will go beyond empathy?  Perhaps offer an adjusted schedule, give the person the phone number for the EAP program, or just let them vent.  If one of your team members wants to continue to work from home even though the company has mandated that everyone needs to return to the office, what action can you take without compromising the policy?  Maybe you could ask more questions to get to the root cause of why they want to work from home and see if you can come up with a creative solution without breaking the rules.

So I’d love to know what you think.  Are you seeing sympathy, empathy, or compassion in the workplace?  Or none of the above?!  What are some great acts of compassion that you have observed.  Please share by commenting below.


  • Merge – I am so very sorry to hear of this devastating loss. The best example that comes to mind is actually a grief-related one. I was reeling when a close family member died suddenly and I distinctly remember the difference between checking the boxes as some did (thank you for the card) contrasted with being asked if I needed more time off while the person shared their person story of moving through complex grief. Keeping you in my thoughts.

  • Dear Merge,
    My sincere condolences on the loss of your beloved husband Al. It is my hope that you have much love and compassionate support from friends and colleagues.
    My experience with loss and grief: the most compassionate act that has truly made a difference for me is when my family, friends, and colleagues ‘remember’ my loved ones, regardless of how much time has passed. Special occasions can be very difficult, and it really helps when family and friends remember/include our loved ones that left far too soon.
    Keeping you in my thoughts, Merge.

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful words of condolence Glenda. You are right, it hurts when people forget. One of the hardest things I had to do was change my “emergency contact”. Al has been that person for as long as I have been married, and having to change it (while is completely logical) felt like a slap in the face.

  • My sincere condolences on your loss.
    I don’t know you but feel like I do since Alex has shared a beautiful post about you and your husband and how close friends you have been. My heart goes out for you and everyone in your family.

    You wrote a beautiful article, thank you for sharing and bringing to our attention the significant life changing meaning of compassion. Not just in the workplace but in every part of our life.

    I consider myself very fortunate as I have experienced sympathy by tons of people, empathy from many friends and compassion from all the people that matter in my life.

    I have also witnessed many times the lack of compassion in the workplace and I can’t agree more with you when you say that (and I quote your words) Compassion in the workplace is the most critical leadership skill in the post-pandemic world.

    Words are “nice” and “soothing” in times of need but a sincere hug or action that screams “I am here for you” goes a long long way.

    Compassion is a skill. We should practice on improving it. Following one simple rule in my life, has helped me to balance my emotions and actions and show compassion, kindness and respect when needed.
    “Treat everyone the way YOU want to be treated”. It doesn’t take much effort to be kind and compassionate, but it makes such a huge impact and difference to the person receiving it.

    Thank you Merge. Be safe, be well.

    • Athanasia, you are so kind to take the time to post. I always knew that compassion was a very important skill, but the last 13 weeks have really brought it front and centre for me. It shouldn’t take a tragedy for us to practice it more often!

  • Dear Merge,
    My deepest condolences on the loss of your dear Al. I know what a beautiful person he was by the way you affectionately talked about him. I hope you find some comfort in the memories you share of him.
    Thank you for sharing this story.

    • Thank you Tina for your kind and thoughtful words. My Al was indeed an amazing human being and I miss him deeply. I hope to be visiting all of you again on campus soon in the new year as I start working again.

  • What else does compassion from a leader look like? What comes to mind is the long pause, not rushing through silence, and asking “what do you need right now that we can do?” and checking in a few hours, a few days, and a few weeks later.

    • Perfect answer Ian. I couldn’t agree more! Especially the bit about not just asking, but checking in later.

  • Merge,
    Sorry and saddened to hear about your loss! I can’t image what you experienced, especially when it was unexpected. I recalled your smiling face when you mentioned your husband and his stories in one of our workshops. If you have time for a coffee (in calgary), let me know.
    Take care and hugs,

    • Thank you for your kind words of condolence Liza, I appreciate you. Yes, a coffee would be lovely the next time I am in town.

  • Thank you, Merge for sharing bits of your grief journey and the compassion your friend Alexandra demonstrated. We need more of both of you in the world to minimize and heal the trauma around us and, for many, carried within us.

    I notice how you are beautifully you are turning your loss of Al into meaning. I support you 100% in declaring the importance of compassion.

    Sending a loving hug, Patricia

    • Thank you Patricia, you have always been a great role model for compassion in action. It is only because I have lived through this, that I now have come to realize the great depth of what you do to help people in grief. I always knew, but I didn’t know how much!


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