Businessolver Study Reveals Leadership Experienced Key Shifts In Perception of Workplace Empathy

91 percent of CEOs believe empathy is directly linked to a company’s financial performance

“This year’s data highlights how workplace empathy can bridge the gap in belonging and support true, holistic employee well-being,” said Businessolver’s Chief Strategy Officer, Rae Shanahan. “But it also reinforces yet again that organizations will see better talent attraction, retention, and employee engagement, and in today’s labor market, these business outcomes are more valuable than ever.”

Leaders struggle to “walk the walk”

The 2019 State of Workplace Empathy Study indicates that leaders understand the value of empathy in their organizations. This year, 72 percent of CEOs surveyed say that empathy in the workplace needs to change — a 15-point increase in just two years. At the same time, more than 90 percent of employees say they’re more likely to stay with an empathetic employer, underscoring just how much they value empathy in their workplaces.

Yet even as leaders are getting the message about empathy, they overestimate how well they’re showing it. In fact, 92 percent of CEOs say their organization is empathetic, but only 72 percent of employees agree (a 6-point decrease from previous years). This gap may exist because CEOs don’t necessarily know how to exhibit empathy to their employees. This year, 58 percent of CEOs say they struggle with consistently demonstrating empathy in the workplace. Leaders are also more likely to say empathy results in improved financial performance, whereas employees believe empathy helps people in their daily working lives.

“These disconnects, what we call the ‘Empathy Gap,’ show that while leaders know that empathy is important, they don’t necessarily understand their employees’ point of view,” said Businessolver President and CEO Jon Shanahan.  “Leaders need to make real connections with their employees so that they have the opportunity to listen — to the things that employees are concerned about, to the ways that employees want them to demonstrate empathy — and  by learning from their employees, leadership can keep them engaged, productive, and staying with their organization for the long term.”

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Employers play a key role in employee well-being

Despite the growth of corporate wellness programs in recent years, employee well-being hasn’t improved in a corresponding way. The 2019 State of Workplace Empathy Study shows that employees want companies to empathize with their day-to-day working lives and support their overall well-being. The study found that 90 percent of employees believe employers should do more for employee well-being, and HR professionals (85%) and CEOs (94%) overwhelmingly agree.

Programs and benefits that help employees balance the myriad responsibilities and priorities they have are rated as most empathetic. Those responsibilities are increasingly varied, now that four generations are actively in the workforce. Benefits centered on family ranked as most empathetic by employees, with 95 percent of employees saying daycare and flexible work hours are empathetic, and 94 percent saying paid parental leave shows empathy. But it’s not just parents — 93 percent of respondents indicate extended bereavement leave is empathetic, showing that employees care about having time with their families in times of birth, death, or when caring for a relative. Nine out of 10 Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials say the value of flexibility is crucial for empathy — demonstrating how “Sandwich Generation” employees need flexibility to care for younger and older relatives, and how employees of all ages are working to find true work-life balance.

Supporting holistic employee well-being and addressing stress that comes with competing responsibilities is increasingly important — an estimated 40 million Americans are coping with some form of anxiety. In the 2019 State of Workplace Empathy Study, 8 in 10 employees, HR professionals, and CEOs stated that companies see people suffering from a mental health issue as a burden. This persistent stigma around mental health is significant: nearly half (47%) of employees report experiencing a mental health issue in the last year. Benefits directly addressing mental health, and broader programs that support flexibility and family priorities, foster the culture of empathy that organizations need to improve total employee well-being.

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Respecting and embracing diversity leads to empathy

Diversity encompasses race, gender, generation, and more, and today’s workplaces must embrace this and create a sense of belonging and inclusion for all employees. The 2019 Study shows that empathy is the connective tissue that helps employees feel valued, and this must be expressed in every facet of a workplace’s culture. There is no one initiative or benefit that will create empathy — it must be a thorough and authentic value exhibited across the entire organization.

For example, diversity in leadership remains a key factor for demonstrating empathy. This year, 75 percent of employees, 92 percent of HR professionals, and 87 percent of CEOs say companies would be more empathetic with more diverse leadership. Likewise, as mentioned, benefits that support employees of different generations are rated as most empathetic. By tuning in to the diverse needs of their employee population, employers can help everyone feel welcome at work and overcome the loneliness and stress that are increasingly prevalent. In 2019, nearly a quarter (22%) of study respondents said they can’t bring their true selves to work, so the need for an empathetic, inclusive environment is greater than ever.

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Without empathy, employers are falling behind

When evaluating the last four years of State of Workplace Empathy Study results, the connection between empathy and positive business outcomes has never been stronger. Ninety-three percent of employees state they are more likely to stay with an empathetic employer, and 82 percent would consider leaving their job for a more empathetic organization. Furthermore, employees also report that they are more engaged, with 78 percent stating they would work longer hours for a more empathetic employer.

“Year-over-year, we see how employees, HR professionals, and CEOs alike are counting on empathy to make their working lives better by being more productive and engaged, retaining talent, and reaching business goals,” said Businessolver’s Rae Shanahan. “While leaders now have increased awareness of the fundamental need for and value of workplace empathy, they’ve reached a new hurdle in understanding how to develop a holistically empathetic workplace environment.”