top of page

‘if you don’t know what empathy is, you’re kind of in the wrong job’

-Person who receives support


What we did

We interviewed 8 support workers and 7 people with learning disabilities about empathy. We also did a focus group with 6 people who are managers of support workers.

After this, we did a forum theatre workshops with 6 support workers, where they created scenes focusing on difficulties around empathy and explore how to solve the problems.  


If you would like to know more about the methods we used, please get in touch.


Why we did it

Alexander and Gillian first met when we made a video of people with learning disabilities talking about their experiences of good and bad support. Making this video we became very interested in why some support workers seemed to have a lot more empathy with the people they support than others.

We decided to do some research looking at what helps support workers to have empathy and what gets in the way and to see if we could find out more about how to support empathy.


Our research questions:

Our main research questions were:

  • What is empathy?

  • Why is it important in support work?

  • What gets in the way of support workers empathising with the people they work with?

  • How do we overcome those barriers and give support workers the right support for empathy?

This page gives a summary of what we found.

Download our full report here.


Why is it important in support work?​​

Everyone we spoke to thought that ​

empathy is key to support work. This is mainly because it is work which is about human interaction and care and because empathy makes it easier to build relationships. People also considered it to be key to person centred working. Many felt that empathy allows workers to see the bigger picture which makes it easier to overcome emotional challenges and personal reactions they may have to situations and understand the person and their family better.

Importantly for anyone dedicated to meaningful inclusion, people who receive support said things like ‘when people listen and understand I feel equal’.


What is empathy?

Everyone we spoke to considered empathy to be an active process:

  • Thinking about how I would feel in this situation and imagining what it is like

  • Feeling into the emotional state of the other ‘using all of my senses’

  • Offering support this could be practical help where appropriate, or it could be just being there and listening


People said that to do this you need to know yourself well, understand we are all different, listen, be non-judgemental, and respectful.

Download our full report here.


What gets in the way of empathy happening?

Support workers identified ‘feeling under pressure’ as the main barrier to empathy because, ‘it’s difficult to step into someone else’s shoes when you are full of worry and pressure’. There were lots of different ways that they felt under pressure:

  • Not having enough time (to get to know people, to get support with difficulties, to listen and undertake tasks, feeling rushed)

  • Rota pressures (being asked to do too many shifts, 24hr shifts put pressures on lifestyle, not getting annual leave entitlement, being texted about work on days off)

  • Life pressures (family don’t support or understand, studying alongside working, balancing demanding rotas with family)

  • Pressures in the relationship between support worker and person they support.


How do we overcome the barriers to empathy?

Support workers had clear ideas about how to overcome the barriers to empathy. Some of these solutions are already happening within organisations, and some are not happening yet.

Some support workers felt they have the following resources at work to help them sustain empathy:

  • Support/advice from family of person they support

  • Feedback from management about how they work

  • Emotional support from management

  • Team meetings

  • with manager:

  • Empathy from co-workers

  • Time off when I need it


Some support workers also did things to support themselves and their ability to have empathy outside of their work-time. For example, making sure I have ‘me time’ drinking coffee, skateboarding, eating, time to reflect over a cup of tea.

Support workers recognised that it is difficult for organisations to change some of the pressures relating for example to times and rotas. They had some important suggestions for further ways to support empathy in their work. These were:


Peer support time: One of the most popular suggestions made by support workers was to have regular peer support time which they are paid to attend. Support workers felt this should be facilitated by someone outside the organisation so that they would feel free to explore ideas without judgement.

They suggested the purpose of this time should be used to:

  • reflect on practice and share knowledge about what works

  • knock ideas around and get to know each other

  • be part of a supportive community

  • time to reflect, recharge

  • empathise with each other ‘when someone empathises with me, I can empathise with someone else’


This particularly addresses the barrier relating to pressures in the relationship and considering creative ways of dealing with this.


Trainings on empathy: Support workers suggested trainings exploring what empathy is and how it can be nurtured. They suggested using interactive experiential learning methods.

Download our full report here

bottom of page