Comprehending one form of workplace mistreatment, abuse, or trauma ideally should make us more empathetic toward those going through different, but similar experiences.
However, this is not always so. Over the years, on occasion I have observed the unfortunate tendency of some people who have experienced serious workplace mistreatment to be dismissive of the difficult experiences of others, even when those situations bear similarities to their own. For example:
- Targets of workplace bullying who are dismissive of people alleging discrimination on the basis of race, sex, or some other group;
- Those who are deeply concerned about discrimination in society but are dismissive of claims of workplace bullying, assuming that it’s not as bad; and,
- Professionals who rail against the unfair or wrongful treatment that disrupted their career tracks, but who disregard the sufferings of underpaid and mistreated low-wage workers here and abroad; and,
- Targets of workplace mobbing (group bullying) who put down targets of more one-to-one workplace bullying, as if mobbing by definition is worse.
I’m not suggesting that all forms of workplace mistreatment are alike and that we should regard them equally. Far from it. They may vary greatly in severity and longevity.
But they all involve various levels of distress, fear, anger, want, pain, and injustice, sometimes with long-term impacts.
Of course, drawing lines on our empathy may also be a defensive mechanism, a guard against “empathy exhaustion,” a more lay version of what clinicians might call compassion fatigue for those involved in medical and caregiving work. Indeed, with all the suffering in the world, can we really pour our hearts out to all of it without eventually burning out? Perhaps not, at least for us mere mortals.
But as I wrote some time ago, we need to connect the dots between various forms of trauma and mistreatment in order to comprehend how power is used and abused in our society. Sometimes it will lead us to understanding common sources and systems. That horribly bullied mid-level manager in a local manufacturing plant and that sexually harassed staff assistant working at the company’s corporate headquarters? The roots of their mistreatment may have a lot more in common than first meets the eye.
Only when we understand these commonalities can we build a broad-based movement that affirms the importance of dignity at work for all.
Great video on empathy — and under 3 minutes!
I’m changing the subject slightly, but as long as we’re talking about empathy, here’s a great little animated video on the subject by Dr. Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead (2013):