How to keep empathy from waning in the workplace

 Empathy can be a powerful motivator, not only in driving individual career choices but also in establishing workplace cultures where employees feel valued and want to stay long-term. Moreover, empathy is recognized when seen and admired in practice. During a recent BenefitsPro webinar, Mercer senior partner Tracy Watts noted that clients were asking what else they could do for their employees during these trying times beyond choosing appropriate benefits packages. “It’s nice to see the empathy and compassion come through,” she said.

However, a new survey warns that as prized as empathy may be, there are signs of gaps in perception and stalled progress in prioritizing this key factor in the workplace.

For its fifth-annual State of Workplace Empathy Study, Businessolver reached out to professionals in six industry sectors during February 2020. The study found that while empathy’s value has risen over the years, there is a significant disconnect between how executives discern it and how employees experience it. 91% of CEOs surveyed said they believed their companies were empathetic, whereas 68% of employees agreed with that characterization. CEOs, in general, were seen to be empathetic by 45% of employee respondents, while CEOs gave themselves higher marks at 87%. When it came to their own CEOs, 63% of employees saw them as empathetic. By contrast, 80% of employees felt the most empathy from their fellow employees.

That disconnect between CEO and employee extends to what each believes to be the benefits of empathy. Employees believe empathy leads to a more productive workforce, as well as a higher likelihood of reduced turnover. CEOs, on the other hand, tend to be more focused on empathy as a way to increase the bottom line as opposed to how it can affect the workplace for the general good on a day-to-day basis.

This was the first year Gen Z employees (those born in 1997 and later) were included in the survey. 61% of those respondents felt it was important for their organization to have political influence, and 82% of them said using company time to volunteer for a social cause was a demonstration of empathy. Gen Z employees were also likelier to perceive empathy in their organization than their older counterparts, although 44% of Millennial respondents and 47% of Gen X respondents also wanted to use company time for volunteerism.

Even though the study took place in the first quarter of 2020, many of the concerns expressed by employees on the subject of benefits will sound familiar in the COVID-19 present. Flexible schedules allowing time to care for family members and work-from-home options were important or very important to 88% of respondents. At the time of the survey, only 31% of employees said their employers offered such flexible benefits. “Comp” time was also important to 92% of employees, and only 30% said comp time was offered at their companies.

The study found that 9 out of 10 employees, HR professionals, and CEOs believe organizations that invest in their employees via skills and professional development programs are more empathetic. Once again, however, there’s a disconnect in perception: 34% of employees believe their employers don’t provide enough skills development, compared to 8% of CEOs. When it comes to whether the responsibility of development falls on the employer or the employee, respondents were split: 45% of employees and CEOs said it was an individual’s responsibility, while 55% of both groups placed the responsibility on the employers.

A more troubling disconnect can be seen around the question of employee mental health. While 97% of CEOs say all levels at their company are empathetic toward the mental health of employees, only 69% of employees agree with that assessment. Additionally, 64% of employees felt reaching out to leadership or HR about a mental health issue could have a negative impact on their job security,

“This study proves that empathy at work continues to be paramount to employees, but as they see it declining, it threatens the cohesion and success of the workplace,” says Jamil Zaki of Stanford University, an associate professor of Psychology and organizer of the global Kindness Challenge.

In order to reverse that decline, Businessolver President and CEO Jon Shanahan says employers need to step up. ”CEOs now have to embrace their dual role: as Chief Executive Officer and Chief Empathy Officer. Taking the entire individual into account is a major step towards creating a culture of empathy now and in the future. With anxiety levels at all-time highs, this must become a top priority.”