How to create a culture of empathy, understanding and support

Which is better: skin as thick and tough as a honey badger, or thin and fragile like pastry?

Having thick skin protects us from harm, right? One might think that an effective leader is able to shrug off criticism and easily overcome rejection. For health professionals, this ability to withstand upsetting feelings may be additionally beneficial given the sometimes distressing nature of their job. 

This may be true in some ways. But recently the value of vulnerability in a leader – in fact, in anyone – is increasingly seen as important. Vulnerability doesn’t mean that you easily crumple into a sobbing mess; it means you feel and you care. It’s why you became a pharmacist isn’t it?

People who can share their vulnerability at work and be open with how they feel is not a weakness, it’s a strength. And it is now believed to be an essential quality of a good leader. Leading a team is no longer about a dictatorship; it’s about empowering and supporting others to be the best that they can be. This requires open communication, vulnerability and empathy.

Which is better: skin as thick and tough as a honey badger, or thin and fragile like pastry?

When we’re vulnerable we show our emotions and, by virtue, encourage others to do the same. Connecting with others in this way can bond a team and create a safe environment where everyone feels heard, supported and understood.

Tea and empathy

Key to this is empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of someone else. It is sometimes confused with sympathy, but they are not the same thing. You can feel sympathy for someone who is upset, and you might be concerned about them, but empathy goes further – you take the time to understand their situation and perspective.

Empathy is one of the key components of emotional intelligence  – a vital leadership skill, and thought to be more important than the conventional IQ for predicting academic and career success.

An ongoing empathy study of US companies has recently demonstrated how important an empathetic workplace is to employees. In this study, almost all employees reported that they are more likely to stay with an empathetic employer, and over 80 percent would consider leaving their job for a more empathetic organisation. Furthermore, employees also report that they are more engaged, with over three-quarters stating that they would work longer hours for a more empathetic employer.

With staff recruitment to NHS posts often proving challenging, demonstration of a supportive and empathetic culture in your team may help retain and attract talented employees. 

Creating a culture of empathy, understanding and support

Start by having empathy for yourself. Don’t beat yourself up about a setback or a disappointment and congratulate yourself for your achievements. The more self-compassion you have, the more empathy you can show to others.

Think about how you are vulnerable. Do you find it difficult to say no? Do you find it hard to admit mistakes, or feel uncomfortable asking for help? Understanding and accepting your own vulnerabilities will help you understand and accept those of others.

Opening up to others takes courage, so start with small steps. Talk more openly about something with a loved family member or partner. Then move on to tackle something bigger with a friend. By getting more comfortable about being open in a safe environment, you’ll become more confident in showing your vulnerability at work. Once you have shown your vulnerability, you’ll inspire others to do the same, and you’ll be on your way to creating a supportive and empowering culture.

The art of listening

Listening to others makes them feel validated and helps them to open up and explore their thoughts and feelings. But there’s a difference between hearing and listening. ‘Active’ listening involves truly concentrating and carefully considering what the other person is saying, without interrupting and offering opinion.

  • If you are concerned that someone is acting differently to normal, checking in with them to ask “Are you ok? You don’t seem yourself at the moment” is a gentle invitation to start a conversation.
  • Find the right time and place to have a meaningful conversation, away from distractions and interruptions.
  • Listen without judgment or advice. Don’t think about whether you would feel the same in their situation – their feelings and reactions may be different to you, but they are just as valid.  
  • Listen with the intent of understanding this person and their situation, rather than forming an opinion or talking about a similar situation you have been in. 
  • You’re a health professional, you’ll naturally want to help, but avoid offering advice or solutions unless asked to. Otherwise, this may come across as a form of judgment which says ‘the way you are now is not OK, we need to change it’, and this may do more harm than good, disempowering them to find their own solutions and making the right choice for themselves. 
  • Pay full attention. You don’t need to worry about silences or what you’ll say next. Sometimes you might need to read between the lines to understand what they are really trying to say, so try to hear the meaning behind the words.

Creating a work culture of support, empathy and understanding benefits everyone. Shedding that thick skin to expose your own vulnerability and show your feelings will generate a sense of trust within your whole team and encourage others to follow your lead. 


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the UKCPA or its members. We encourage readers to follow links and references to primary research papers and guidance.

Competing interest statement: 

The author declares: no support from any organisation for the submitted work; no financial relationships with any organisations that might have an interest in the submitted work in the previous three years; no other relationships or activities that could appear to have influenced the submitted work.


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