As more offices go back to normal, companies face a choice: Maintain a compassionate workplace or risk losing employees

 In late 2021, Alayna Almén, a resident of the Midwest, received the devastating news of her father and stepmother's tragic deaths. Understandably distraught, Almén promptly notified her manager, who initially lightened her workload to allow her time to grieve. However, when Almén informed her manager that the funeral service would be postponed for a couple of weeks due to authority procedures, her workload was reinstated along with a backlog of tasks that had accumulated. Faced with this lack of compassion, Almén decided to leave her role a few months later. She emphasized the importance for companies to treat employees as more than just "cogs in the wheel" and to demonstrate genuine care, rather than indicating that they can be easily discarded.

During times of global or personal tragedies, some employees may experience feelings of office dystopia or ongoing anxiety as they try to balance work while processing difficult news. As organizations prepare for a return to the office amidst various ongoing challenges, how they support their employees through difficult times can significantly impact both the individual and the company itself. 

The pandemic brought empathy and flexibility to the forefront in many workplaces. Now, as businesses face crucial decisions, lawyer and empathy consultant Katharine Manning suggests a choice: either ignore the struggles and pretend they never happened, or use the lessons learned to create a new kind of workplace geared towards long-term resilience. The stakes are high, as productivity and loyalty are closely tied to how employees are supported during challenging moments. Reports indicate that many employees already feel disengaged and are discreetly leaving their jobs.

Manning underscores the significance of support during difficult times, as it directly influences employees' sense of inclusion and thriving in the workplace. Workers are increasingly valuing feeling valued and recognized over higher pay, leading to what some have described as an "epidemic of neglect" in certain organizations. 

One way for employers to start fostering empathy is by engaging with their workers and acknowledging the challenges they face. A Gallup analysis reveals that high employee engagement improves retention rates, making employees less likely to seek opportunities elsewhere. Manning emphasizes that organizations prioritizing their employees and showing care and support are the ones that benefit most from increased engagement and profitability. 

The pandemic provided a crash course in empathy for many companies. The heightened levels of distress and the fact that employees were virtually connected, with glimpses into each other's personal lives, enabled organizations to step up and provide support. However, the real test lies in whether they can sustain this empathy as the world aims to return to pre-pandemic norms and workers' leverage in the labor market decreases. Even if hiring becomes easier or complying with workers' demands seems less necessary, empathy should remain a core value.

To maintain an empathetic workplace, Manning suggests that managers receive training on how to navigate conversations about difficult times. Companies should offer accessible mental health resources and encourage leaders to model their use. Additionally, organizations should ensure that their culture does not contribute to further harm to employees and that rules are applied transparently and equally. Unfortunately, around one-fifth of workers do not have access to sick leave, and there is no federal mandate for bereavement leave beyond a few days off for the loss of a spouse or child. Neglecting these issues and failing to adapt to the changing needs of employees will ultimately result in losing talented individuals who are unwilling to work in such environments.  

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