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Empathy: A Powerful Health & Safety Leadership Tool

It can be incredibly difficult to understand addiction and mental health issues, especially for people who have never experienced them personally. It can be hard to understand why someone just can’t stop using drugs or quit drinking or why someone suffering from depression can’t just snap out of it and cheer up.

LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck

Whether we have personally been in a similar situation or not, the ability to try and imagine what this may be like for someone else is a very powerful tool – this “tool” is called empathy. Empathy is the ability to recognize someone else’s thoughts, feelings and emotions and understand their point of view. When people feel their thoughts and emotions are accepted and validated, it builds trust. Especially for those in a leadership role, building trust among the people you work with every day is one of the most valuable skills you can have.

Empathy doesn’t have to mean agreeing with or totally understanding another person’s choices. However, good leaders are open-minded enough to at least consider and understand where other people are coming from. Empathy allows you to understand another person’s motivations and problems, then forge a deeper connection with that person, predict how they will react in certain situations and create a work environment that allows everyone to thrive.

“There are many layers of leadership. Some leaders are elected, some are appointed and some people informally emerge as leaders among their peers,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “Those in leadership positions generally have some influence and an opportunity to help shape the actions and beliefs of others. When people in positions of leadership practice and show empathy, it can lower the level of stigma present in the workplace and may encourage someone to step forward and get the help they need.”

Our society is experiencing an opioid and suicide epidemic, and the same issues are being felt within LIUNA’s ranks. The construction industry has the second highest rate of drug and alcohol abuse and the highest rate of suicide among all occupations. We all have an opportunity to change the conversation and the outlook around addiction and mental health-related issues. Those in leadership positions especially can help remove stigma and shame and make it easier for people to come forward and get the help they need and deserve. We have the power and influence to impact whether people struggling with these issues will be supported and helped by their union brothers and sisters or ignored.

According to the National Survey on Drug Abuse and Health, an estimated 20 million people in the U.S. suffer from substance use disorders every year. Only about 10-15 percent receive treatment. This shows that addiction is a pervasive problem that’s often ignored. Your leadership, encouragement and empathy could be the difference that allows a LIUNA member to begin their lifelong recovery journey.

Starting this month and moving forward, we challenge everyone in a leadership position to try and be more empathic with those around you – both people you supervise and your fellow leaders. Empathy requires listening, openness and understanding. There’s no better time to start than this month, because September is National Recovery Month. The goal is to increase awareness and understanding of mental health and substance use disorders and celebrate the people who recover. The 2019 theme is “Join the Voices for Recovery: Together We Are Stronger.”

Humans are social beings and everyone has the capacity to develop empathy. It’s a skill, and like any skill, empathy can be cultivated through intentional effort. We can all afford to be more patient and tolerant with each other. Seeing things from another person’s point of view may also help you be more understanding in other social interactions in your life and improve your other relationships as well.

[Jamie Becker is the Fund’s Director of Health Promotion.]

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