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Empathy: A force that moves MSD forward

December 28, 2021

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Against a backdrop of unprecedented health crisis, societal shifts, and global economic uncertainty, a foundational value stands out. That is empathy.

Empathy, which is the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experience of others, is all the more essential to enabling any organization to survive in the midst of a pandemic. It fosters connectedness, concern, and effective collaboration among teams –despite the physical distance.

But with or without pandemic, understanding other people’s emotions is a key skill in the workplace. It can enable us to resolve conflicts, strengthen commitment to our profession, and to improve our relationships with co-workers, partners, and customers.

For healthcare company, MSD in the Philippines, demonstrating empathy takes root from its values, and permeates as part of its culture. In an interview with Marese de Vera, MSD Human Resource Leader, and Mike Blanch, MSD Market Access and Corporate Affairs Director, we explore exemplary approaches to fostering empathy in the organization and why it drives engagement and innovation.

Defining empathy at MSD

“Empathy plays a big role in how we look after our employees, their families and the patients that we serve. Our leaders and employees have empathy or malasakit sa kapwa. This is the driving force for our employees to help those in need, and to make a difference in all our patients’ lives,” said Ms. de Vera.

Empathy enables MSD to attend to their employees’ evolving needs. In return, MSD employees are able to take care of their families, serve their clients and support their community. They are able to thrive despite unprecedented challenges.

Listening is key

“The stance of the whole organization is to listen first. And that’s where empathy starts. The only way to find solution is by listening first”, related Mr. Blanch. By listening, MSD demonstrates meaningful connection with patients and patient advocates worldwide.

During the pandemic, MSD actively listened to the needs of its employees through daily check-ins, team meetings, and virtual town hall meetings with the Managing Director, where employees get updates about the COVID-19 situation, guidance on business operations, and employee support. At the end of these sessions, employees are invited to raise questions or concerns, and get responses from the country leadership team. The company also conducted surveys to better understand and manage new employee concerns such as connectivity issues, challenges for employees whose children suddenly shifted to homeschooling or distance learning. These surveys aided the company to come up with the right initiatives to address their employees’ needs.

MSD values the perspectives of their employees. By actively listening, the company was able to create a diverse workforce and nurture a sense of belonging. Employees are comfortable to express their ideas and concerns.

“When our employees know they are crucial to our mission, not only will they thrive, but our company will, too,” Ms. de Vera added.

Helping employees navigate uncertainties

On top of adapting to the sudden shift from face-to-face work to remote and digital workplace, the pandemic brought uncertainties in terms of health and wellness, safety, finances and job security. All of these things affected the wellbeing of employees.

Christine Zuñiga, Innovative Customer Solutions Lead, shared how MSD helped employees transition by ensuring that no one is left behind.

“Our leaders asked us to support and hold the hands of our colleagues – especially in terms of how we can transition seamlessly to our digital channels and tools.” said Ms. Zuniga.

From a manager’s point-of-view, Anna Lisa Cordial, Senior District Manager, noted that achieving targets became challenging. For 21 years, she has been used to personal interactions in the field. Due to the pandemic, from personally interacting with team members and clients, to doing collaborations remotely, her team faced challenges to deliver as usual.

“MSD has always emphasized work-life balance to avoid digital burnout. The company initiated activities that aim to support its people and improve engagement with customers”, shared Ms. Cordial. “I made a conscious effort to reach out to my team and our customers. I tried to put myself in their shoes and see the situation from their perspective.”

Understanding employees’ needs

Employees appreciate how MSD has shown compassion when they experienced personal struggles regardless of their tenure.

Ms. Zuñiga related how MSD leaders and colleagues showered her with much support and encouragement during her personal COVID-19 battle.

“The kindness and empathy I received during that difficult period extinguished my fears and anxieties. When someone is kind to you, you want to emulate that person… to pay it forward,” expressed Ms. Zuniga. “I’m very thankful to be in an environment that cultivates compassion and kindness.”

Carolyn Bayabos, a Tender Operations Specialist and relatively new in MSD, conveyed the same appreciation for MSD. In 2020, her nephew underwent a critical surgery. In 2021, she tested positive for Covid-19. Through it all, her manager and MSD leaders showed compassion and empathy by allowing her to take time off and attend to her personal needs.

“They are not just concerned about my work and output,” emphasized Ms. Bayabos. “They genuinely care about me and my family. The company understands what I’m going through. I truly appreciate the support of my colleagues and MSD. It gave me hope and allowed me to carry on.”

MSD aims to provide the best health care solutions to patients. The same applies to their employees. MSD walks the talk in ensuring that their employees also have access to the best healthcare benefits. “If not for MSD, I will not have the best treatment option for cancer. When you work for a company that relates to your situation, not just as an employee, but as a person, as a woman, as a mother, your determination to stay is heightened,” shared Ms. Cordial who is a breast cancer survivor. “I am grateful for MSD’s support that has allowed me to enjoy this second life.”

Empathy brings innovation

For more than 100 years globally, and for over 25 years in the Philippines, MSD has been an innovator in the health care industry. While scientific and technical expertise are required to pursue medical breakthroughs, MSD credits empathy for driving innovation.

“Every great innovation has come from a place of empathy. Empathy is the core of an innovation culture. Without it, we are unable to create anything truly new,” said Mr. Blanch.

MSD continues to innovate across all major therapeutic areas. Mr. Blanch cites two examples—in vaccines and oncology.

To ensure equitable access to life-saving vaccines, the company partnered with government and nongovernmental organizations to build sustainable and effective vaccination delivery programs that reliably reach people. Among their landmark initiatives are “Bakunado si Lolo at Lola, Iwas Pulmonya”, a campaign that aims to educate senior citizens and caregivers on the value of immunization; “Back to BakUNA”, a school-based immunization (SBI) that underscores the safety and efficacy of vaccines and its crucial role in disease prevention, and “Sa Aking Paglaki, Walang HPV”, a program which helped introduce HPV vaccination as part of the SBI Program in LGUs.

In the area of Oncology, MSD spearheads Hope from Within, a multi-stakeholder cancer advocacy, that aims to renew hope that cancer need not be a death sentence anymore by promoting early detection of cancer, increasing access to cancer care, and spread knowledge of innovative treatment options that improve survivorship. In terms of cancer treatment, MSD worked closely with patient advocates to push forward the landmark National Integrated Cancer Control Act.

“MSD is committed to delivering breakthrough innovations to extend and improve the lives of people with cancer worldwide,” emphasized Mr. Blanch.

Empathy delivers progress

Empathetic leaders realize that the bottom line of any business is only reached through and with people. Therefore, they have an attitude of openness towards and understanding of the feelings and emotions of their team members.

“When we meet as a leadership team, we ask, what can we do to address our employees’ concerns, and how will we implement these initiatives?” We take a top-down and bottom-up approach, so it allows us to understand employees’ concern and this process is very fluid,” remarked Ms. de Vera. “It’s difficult to lead when you don’t know the pulse of the employees.”

By learning about the needs of their employees, leaders are better equipped to enable a culture of innovation and high performance.

“The reason why the leadership has a strong sense of listening to people we work with is because of empathy. We want to fully understand what our customers, what our employees are feeling. That’s the only way to come up with innovative approaches, innovative medicines. The only way for employees to trust you is through listening to them,” commented Mr. Blanch.

By prioritizing the well-being of its people, MSD, with its empowered employees, continues to serve the Filipino patients amidst the pandemic, and is well-positioned to continue innovating and delivering progress for health care, in the years to come.