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By Zach Giordano
| July 31, 2018
Days after her daughter’s third brain surgery, a mother needed help filling a prescription. Her daughter’s medication was unauthorized, her pharmacist said, making it impossible to acquire. Anxious and frustrated, she picked up the phone to call the Blue Cross Blue Shield member service center.
Miles away, the phone rang at Madeline Cortes’s desk, as it had 40 times that day, another call from a worried stranger.
“I’ve run out of my daughter’s medication,” said the trembling voice on the other end of the line. “She’s recently undergone brain surgery, and this the only thing that makes her feel better. And today’s her birthday.”
Madeline immediately went to work. Her background in customer service allowed her to start resolving the issue—and her training in empathy allowed her to ease this mother’s worries along the way.
She moved swiftly to reach the Blue Cross department that could confirm the prescription was authorized, mindful time was short on that late Friday afternoon. But there was another problem: The family’s usual pharmacy was out of the medication. This mother did not need another hurdle. Madeline could hear her pain and weariness through the phone. So she went ahead and hunted down another pharmacy that had the drug.
“Thank you so much for your help,” said the mother, her voice breaking with relief.
“It was my pleasure,” said Madeline. “Happy birthday to your daughter.”
Empathy as professionals
At work, empathy makes our jobs about more than ourselves, shifting our focus away from our next raise, review, or promotion. Empathy allows us to feel more fulfilled by making it easier to connect with those we rely on—and those who rely on us. It’s all about human connection. And when we’re empathetic, our employees, customers and the bottom-line all benefit.
“Underneath all the facades of perfection and professionalism, we’re all humans dealing with something,” says Marisa Lascher, a human resources expert who designs empathy-based approaches to strengthen organizational culture and employee performance. “Understanding this helps us be more considerate of those that we’re in collaboration with at work, which benefits everyone.”
The first step toward being more considerate of others is being honest with ourselves. Recognizing and acknowledging our skills, fears, and problem areas makes it easier to work together and seek help when necessary.
“By developing self-awareness about our own strengths and weaknesses, it lets us open up to others by fostering a safe environment where ideas flow more freely and questions are asked more frequently,” says Lascher.
Managing with empathy
The 4,000 caregivers employed by the Seven Hills Foundation, a health and human services organization that helps adults, children, and families living with physical and intellectual disabilities by providing support and counseling, put empathy into practice every day for their patients. A critical value for their staff, empathy is also a framework of the leadership mindset at Seven Hills.
For example, after realizing that many employees were cashing out their vacation time to be able to go home to visit their families in other countries, Seven Hills’ leadership created a President’s Fund. Not restricted to travel needs, this fund also helps if employees need assistance heating their homes in the winter, paying off an unexpected medical bill, or getting a car repaired to be able to get to work.
“As more requests for time away came in, we modified our policies to best support our staff,” said Marilyn Lopez-Haddad, VP of Human Resources at Seven Hills Foundation.
It’s an example of empathy being encouraged at work from the top down.
“I think often people characterize empathy as those moments of listening and understanding, but empathy is far more impactful when put into action,” said Veronica Barber, SVP of Human Capital at Benchmark Senior Living, a self-described “human connection company” that serves thousands of elderly individuals across 56 communities.
As people move into a senior living center—similar to people at all stages of life going through a transition—they often feel lost, confused, afraid, or lonely. The empathy provided by the caregivers at Benchmark is the bridge to helping them feel secure and confident again.
“It’s because you care enough to understand the person and know their needs, wants, fears, and vulnerabilities that lets you truly be there to support them,” said Barber.
Hiring with empathy
A truly empathetic workplace is built around employees who truly care. This is the philosophy behind the member service center at Blue Cross Blue Shield, where empathy is the key to the work that associates do and the problems they solve on a daily basis.
“It’s our responsibility to not only resolve the issues of our members, but to make sure they know that we understand that what they’re experiencing is very challenging or difficult, and to support them through that,” said Lynn Bowman, VP of Member Services at Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Before interviews even begin, prospective service center employees are screened for empathy with a behavioral assessment.
“You can’t teach people to care,” said Jen Carbone, senior director of the Blue Cross Blue Shield member service department. “We can teach them programs and processes, but we can’t teach them to care.”
It’s a competitive process. After hours of screening, including a group-hiring event during which prospective candidates are evaluated according to how empathetically they treat each other, jobs are offered to approximately 5% of candidates.
To frame empathy from a member’s perspective, new hires at the service center are trained to walk in their shoes. A program called Creating a Member Experience puts employees through experiences members often go through, from opening bills to getting test results.
“Our goal is to instill an empathetic mindset in our new team members to show respect to our members, make sure that they feel important and valued, and provide them with a sense of understanding, which ultimately makes the experience feel highly personal and customized to them,” said Bridgett Wagner, manager of the new-employee training program.
The impact of empathy
The service center at Blue Cross takes 1.5 million members calls annually, handled by approximately 240 associates – a call volume that leaves plenty of room for error and improvement, leaders know. Every caller would rather be doing something other than calling Blue Cross.
But with each call, there’s a chance to not only help a member, but also to improve a day, or maybe even change a life.
“I say a prayer every morning, ‘Please God, let me be a blessing in someone’s life,’” says member service representative Laurel Oster. When she gets a complicated or emotional call and is able to help, she reflects, “Sometimes I say, ‘Thank you for letting me be that blessing.’”
When Madeline Cortes began that call with the mother of a brain surgery patient, she knew she had her work cut out for her, but also knew she was prepared to help.
“When this mother called in, I could feel the weight of her voice and hear how lost she felt,” said Madeline. By the end of the call, that weight was lifted.
The rewards of empathy go far beyond the job. And they offer lessons that extend far beyond the Blue Cross service center.
“It’s amazing to have an impact on the lives of the people calling in, because when the call starts, you feel the weight that they carry,” Madeline says. “But when the call ends and the member is humorous or grateful, that transition is as profound for us as it is for them.”
This summer, in collaboration with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, BG BrandLab is exploring how empathy can help nurture healthy communities. The next installment, on how to raise a kind child, will run in September.
Sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts
Be more empathetic. It matters.
We asked folks in Boston how empathy has affected their lives—and why they think it’s needed more today than ever.