Research Examines Replacing Sympathy for Empathy in Emotionally Demanding Jobs

August 31, 2021by Elise Sanchez

Summary Of:

Wieck, C., Kunzmann, U., & Scheibe, S. (2021). Empathy at work: The role of age and emotional job demands. Psychology and Aging, 36(1), 36–48.

Background & Theory

Empathy requires both cognitive facets (the ability to perceive others’ emotions accurately) and affective facets (the capacity to share others’ emotions and to feel sympathy). Researchers have commonly thought of empathy as “feeling with” another. On the other hand, sympathy recognizes someone’s emotions and rather “feels for” them. When we want to feel with people, we find the same emotion in ourselves to connect with others. When we “feel for”, or rather sympathise, we recognize someone else’s emotions without having to find our own emotions to relate with.

Within older age groups, research found cognitive facets are vulnerable to age-related decline while affective facets seem to not decline due to aging. It was theorized that people who held emotionally demanding jobs, EDJs, would constantly be practicing these empathetic traits and this would lessen the negative relationship between age and empathic accuracy, or rather, strengthen the positive relationship between age and affective facets of empathy.

Research Question(s)

Research was conducted by Cornelia Wieck, Ute Kunzmann, and Susanne Scheibe in “Empathy at work: The role of age and emotional job demands” to answer the following question:

    1. Does working in occupations with varying emotional job demands (EJDs) moderate the effects of age on empathy?


128 participants, ranging from the ages 19 to 65 were recruited for this study. Employees were then interviewed and instructed to remember, relive, and think aloud both negative and positive emotionally intense memories from their working life. These conversations were recorded and taken back to a laboratory where the participants’ interviews were rated on their intensity of emotions. From there, participants were selected to watch films that would also evoke emotion. The participants were told to fill out a 7-point Likert scale survey measuring empathy, sympathy, and EDJ.


The results were not what the researchers initially expected to find in terms of which age range held more empathy. Within these EJD careers it was found that older employees saw a decline in empathy and an increase in sympathy.

What This Means

  • Within the workforce, empathy is a characteristic trait that is more prominent in those in positions where they are having interpersonal interactions with other humans. These job types are more interpersonal and have workers needing to predict people’s emotions and keep people comfortable and satisfied creating this higher need for empathy. However, contrary to what was predicted, as workers aged and in these EJDs, instead of finding that these older employees experienced lower emotional congruence than younger employees.
  • This distance of replacing empathy with sympathy sets up boundaries and is thought to allow employees to be available. This brought in the question of whether or not this was to either to protect professional well-being or employees felt exhausted with their role in an EJDs. However, further research is needed to find the reason.

Final Takeaway

For Consultants: The difference between empathy and sympathy is often overlooked, yet crucial for better understanding and dealing with conflict. Once one understands the difference and is able to practice both, it becomes easier to exercise better conflict management and mediation skills. 

For Everyone: Empathy and sympathy are both important qualities to have within the workplace. Being able to gauge, predict, and to take perspective on people’s emotions allows for more interpersonal connections.

Elise Sanchez

Élise Sanchez is a double alumnus from Pepperdine University where she holds a Masters in Dispute Resolution from the Caruso School of Law and a Bachelors in both International Relations and French from Seaver College. During her time in her studies she found her passion for being an advocate for those who need help amplifying their voices. After finishing her International Relations degree, she decided to go on for her MDR to learn how to be a better advocate and peacekeeper.

Copyright © 2022 Pollack Peacebuilding Systems