Who is more empathetic e.g., better able to recognize pain in a person’s face, a professional industrial hygienist, or a professional historian? 

Empathy is highly complex (see Wikipedia1) but its simplest meaning is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing. A person’s empathy capacity may be partly determined by Empathy Quotient (EQ) scores. Reference 2 is one example of an EQ scoring method.

Employer needs

Employers today desire leaders with a high EQ. For example, among the “12 Biggest HR Trends in 20223 a high EQ is necessary to support trends that include “Listen to Employees’ Needs,” “Hire Based on Soft Skills,” “Introduce DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) Into the Workplace Culture,” and “Transition Into a Culture of Trust.” 

NIOSH future of work

The future of workplace health and safety necessitates a high EQ; for example, the necessity for a high EQ is interwoven, with varying degrees, among the components within NIOSH’s nine (9) goals found within the agency’s Future of Work Initiative Research Agenda, DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 2022-1054. Future of work components include DEI, multigenerational, productive aging, and vulnerable populations; burnout and stress prevention, healthy leadership, and social and corporate responsibility; and human-machine interaction, wearable exoskeletons and exosuits, among many others. 

Mental health

A high EQ is essential to meet objectives within ISO 45003:2021 Occupational health and safety management – Psychological health and safety at work – Guidelines for managing psychosocial risks. Major components of ISO 45003 include: A workplace that is inclusive and challenges stigma; A workplace culture that is open, honest, and supportive; A workplace where people view physical and mental health with parity; Rising mental health literacy and understanding across the organization; Shared, collective responsibilities for self and others; and, Skilled and confident leadership, role modeling change in attitudes. 

Anatomy of empathy

The National Geographic special publication “The Brain, Discover the Ways Your Mind Works” (display until 9/9/22) provides a two-page graphic (see pages 80-81) on the Anatomy of Empathy. The graphic includes a bell-curve with EQ scores. Bell-curve information includes the following: “Professionals in the sciences: Those who think in highly systematic ways often have lower-than-average empathy responses” and “Professionals in the humanities: People such as musicians and historians typically score higher on EQ tests.”  

Dan has a low EQ score

I completed the EQ test at reference 2 quickly and honestly for this article and scored 20 out of 80 points: very low empathy. The low score was surprising, but not alarmingly. First, I do think in highly systematic ways. Further, low empathy served me well in my youth e.g., U.S. Marine Corps which encouraged depersonalization and during the early and mid-years of my OHS career when regulatory e.g., OSHA compliance coupled with an authoritative personality to promptly meet management conformance objectives dominated my actions.  As found in the wiki article and other sources on empathy, however, the topic is complex. Excessive empathy, for example, can lead to “empathic distress fatigue” with symptoms such as “occupational burnout” (see wiki).

Increase EQ score

The following are steps and reasons that one may take to increase their EQ score:

Recognize the need for change.  The above sections on employer needs, NIOSH future of work, and ISO 45003:2021 (don’t underestimate the influence of 45003) are examples of professional reasons for EQ change. The need for personal EQ change are complex but may begin with open and honest discussions with family and close friends. A lack of close friends may be the result of a low EQ. It is never too late to increase one’s EQ. 

Corporate HR is caught up in the EQ buzz. HR may want to measure your EQ score. Per the National Geographic’s Anatomy of Empathy EQ bell-curve, psychopaths are the least empathic population. The article alerts, however, “If they were honest, psychopaths might score poorly – but they can recognize how and when to feign empathy.” Be aware, some people can manipulate their EQ score – for whatever reason. 

Sometimes called empathetic listening and other terms, active listening is the most prescribed HR tool to increase individual and group development EQ scores. Active listening builds upon the basic source, path, and receiver communication model. Active listening is what it is called: you carefully listen (and observe non-verbal cues) to someone’s concerns and provide short responses e.g., paraphrase in your own words what you believe was said, to enlist more responses – in short, you encourage people to fully communicate. Many examples of the active listening process may be found online. Good active listening is a refined skill. The active listening process has critics (see wiki article on active listening). 

Read updates on brain science. OSHA has a respiratory protection standard. OSHA has a hearing conservation standard. OSHA has an eye and face protection standard. Many OHS pros can readily describe the function of alveoli, cochlea, tympanic membrane, iris and know the difference in 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree burns to the skin. But few OHS pros can describe the functions of the amygdala, somatosensory cortex, or the frontal operculum in the brain. For many reasons, the brain is the most important organ to protect from occupational hazards. Recent advances in brain science and practical applications are amazing. EQ is a brain function! 

Drive the EQ program. NIOSH and ISO are pushing the concept and expanding frontier of psychological health and safety.  Psychological health and safety articles will continue to expand.  The June 2022 issue of ASSP’s Professional Safety Journal on Psychosocial Contributors to MSDs is but one example. HR would like to captain the EQ ship to receive top leadership praise and support.  Now is not the time to be subordinate to HR on this topic, especially if you seek to climb the corporate ladder where promotion and higher pay awaits. EQ is a growth opportunity.


The capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing is a superpower. Few of us, however, are psychologists and psychiatrists – our superpowers are limited. Everyone should be more empathic, to be better people – or at least the best that we can be. Now is the time to raise your EQ score.