Businessolver Study Reveals Resurgence in Workplace Empathy

HR technology leader’s sixth annual study finds organizations’ pandemic responses largely viewed as empathetic, and employees seeking greater progress on benefits related to diversity and mental health

Businessolver, a leader in SaaS-based benefits technology and services,  announced the results of its 2021 State of Workplace Empathy study. The sixth annual study showed that, after declining for years, empathy in the workplace increased amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Businessolver’s 2021 research also uncovered new expectations for employers in creating empathetic work environments; promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI); and protecting employees’ mental health.

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“While it’s discouraging that it took a global pandemic to get there, we’re of course happy to see workplace empathy back on an upward trajectory,” said Jon Shanahan, Businessolver President and CEO. “Still, a closer look at the data reveals that the stress and isolation due to COVID-19 and national attention to racial and social justice issues in the last year exposed empathy gaps that need to be addressed to keep workplace empathy on the rise.”

Pandemic response boosts workplace empathy

Fielded in February, after nearly a full year of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s State of Workplace Empathy study reveals that after years of decline, employees’ empathy ratings of companies and CEOs rebounded in 2021: 72% of employees rate their organizations as empathetic, four percentage points higher than the prior year; 72% also say their CEOs are empathetic—nine percentage points higher than last year’s rate.

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The uptick may be a result of employers’ pandemic responses. Employees, HR professionals, and CEOs in 2021 overwhelmingly express support for specific ways organizations can demonstrate empathy in response to the pandemic—including respecting the need to take time off, implementing flexible schedules, offering new ways of training during the pandemic, and providing the option to work from home.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts not reaching all employees equally

Amid the pandemic, the nation has also grappled with a reckoning around racial inequity. In the State of Workplace Empathy study, employees across the board agree that workplace programs promoting DEI are important. However, the study also reveals that employees are not equally aware of such programs: 64% of Latinx and 59% of Black employees are aware of DEI programs in their workplace, compared to just 37% of white employees.

Furthermore, gaps exist between how CEOs and HR professionals view inclusion versus how it is felt among employees: 96% of CEOs and 91% of HR professionals believe their organization is inclusive of everyone, compared to 80% of employees.

Mental health issues still plagued by stigma

Mental health benefits are linked to empathy, but mental health issues are still stigmatized. Almost half of employees (46%) in the study reported experiencing a mental health issue in the past year. At the same time, large majorities of employees (66%), HR professionals (75%), and CEOs (82%) say that companies view someone with a mental health issue as a burden.

“The workplace shouldn’t be the last place people talk about mental health—especially now, it should be one of the first,” said Businessolver’s Chief Strategy Officer Rae Shanahan. “There are so many partners and providers today who can help organizations achieve better workforce well-being. But most of all, leaders must lead by example by sharing their stories and encouraging open-door policies to discuss issues and solutions.”

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Additional key findings

  • 89% of employees who had the option to work remotely report satisfaction with their employer, 15 percentage points higher than employees who did not have this option.
  • Gen Z’s ratings of their own organization’s empathy declined 14 points since last year’s study, suggesting this newest generation to the workforce is already growing more critical of workplace empathy.
  • Half of CEOs are satisfied with the level of their organization’s empathy; half say it needs to evolve or improve.
  • Despite the overall increase in empathy this year, only a quarter of employees are satisfied. 75% say their organization needs to evolve its empathy—a level that has remained high (75%+) over the six years of the study.

“When COVID-19 is over, whether CEOs lead with empathy will speak volumes,” said Jon Shanahan. “At Businessolver, we’re committing to remaining a remote workforce indefinitely, offering unlimited vacation, and conducting an internal DEI assessment. I am confident that empathy will guide us through these tough times and on the road ahead.”

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