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Empathy Endures Despite COVID-19 Impact

Empathy Endures Despite COVID-19 Impact
Posted on Wednesday, June 2, 2021 by Rae Shanahan

Necessity is the mother of invention, the proverb goes. 


At no time has this been more evident than during the COVID-19 pandemic. To keep serving their customers, restaurants shifted to curbside pickups and delivery services. To meet consumer demand, manufacturers reconfigured their production floors to allow for social distancing and introduced new safety protocols to protect workers and products. To earn a living—and spread much-needed joy—artists and entertainers took to the internet to share their talents.  

And every teacher earned a pair of angel wings.  

Families—no longer running in multiple directions—found themselves sharing space and internet bandwidth. Recess became ok for the grown-ups, who needed to step away from their makeshift desk at the kitchen table. Teenagers helped younger siblings with the “new math” their parents couldn’t quite comprehend. Even the dog tried to horn in on conference calls. And on days filled with even more distractions, employees ended up putting in extra hours, causing them to wonder if they worked from home, or lived at work.  

Employers got the picture, and adapted to the “new normal,” too. According to the 2021 Workplace Empathy Study, organizations rose to the occasion to support their employees in several ways, such as expanding remote work options, extending COVID-19 sick leave, and promoting or introducing new mental health benefits. Most importantly, they responded to their employees’ need for flexibility.  

Time Off and Remote Work Tops the List of Empathetic Behaviors 

Shortly before this year’s survey was fielded, the U.S. had experienced nearly 260,000 COVID-19 cases per day—the highest seven-day average since the pandemic began. So, it’s no surprise that the most highly rated empathetic behavior for 2021 is “understanding and/or respecting the need for time off to take care of family or friends affected by COVID-19” (CEOs – 97%, employees – 94%, and HR professionals – 87%). 

Close behind is providing workers with flexible schedules and more accommodating project deadlines, favored by 94% of CEOs, 92% of employees, and 89% of HR professionals. The option to work remotely during the pandemic is regarded as highly empathetic by 96% of CEOs, 90% of employees, and 87% of HR professionals.  

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Close Behind: Personalized Support and Professional Development 

Also near the top of the list of empathetic pandemic-related behaviors is recognizing personal challenges. These include making time to talk one-on-one about difficulties or problems individuals were facing during the pandemic (CEOs – 93%, employees – 91%, and HR professionals – 85%), and acknowledging the importance of mental health (CEOs – 92%, employees – 91%, and HR professionals 86%). 

Despite our efforts to “flatten the curve” in the early days of the pandemic, the U.S.—like nearly every other nation—quickly realized that we were in for a very long haul. Understandably, workers worried whether they would be able to continue developing their skills under these conditions, which public health officials were saying could last for a year or more. CEOs (96%) most appreciated ways to continue their professional development during the pandemic, followed by HR professionals (90%) and employees (89%). 

Reality Fails to Reflect Highest-Rated Empathetic Behaviors 

Employees, HR professionals, and CEOs are in sync about which behaviors were the clearest expressions of workplace empathy during the pandemic. However, reality paints a different picture. Most of the time, employees report that the highest-rated benefits, policies, and programs were not available to them. 

Despite 90% of employees ranking remote work near the top of their list of empathetic behaviors, only 50% report that this option was available at their organization. Even fewer (40%) say their organization offered flexibility with schedules and deadlines, despite this behavior getting high marks from 94% of CEOs, 92% of employees, and 89% of HR professionals. 

The availability of extended COVID-19 sick leave (40%), online professional development resources (31%), and mental health services and benefits (28%) were also in sharp contrast to employees’ high ranking of these benefits, policies, and programs—94%, 89%, and 91% respectively.  

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The Challenge for HR and Leadership 

Despite the significant gains in 2021, the key drivers of empathy in the workforce—HR professionals and CEOs—are struggling to reconcile their workforces’ need for empathy with how to demonstrate it. This year, more HR pros and CEOs report that it’s hard for others— including their colleagues—to demonstrate empathy in their work and personal lives.  

While two-thirds of HR professionals believe empathy can be learned, that reflects a 10-point drop from the previous year. And 68% of CEOs say they fear they will be less respected if they show empathy in the workplace, up 31 points from 2020.  

Consistency is an issue as well, with 7 in 10 CEOs saying it’s hard for them to regularly demonstrate empathy at work, a 29-point increase from the prior year. And over half of HR professionals agree, representing a 13-point increase.  

Even though CEOs recognize the difficulty of consistently expressing empathy and the fear of judgement involved, just half of them believe that the state of empathy in U.S. organizations is sufficient, marking the lowest point in the six years of the study. This may be because CEOs have greater levels of visibility into the programs and offerings that make workplaces empathetic in the wake of the pandemic.  

The number of CEOs saying that empathy in their organizations is sufficient plummeted 22 points from last year, with just half agreeing. That said, this number is significantly higher than the 1 in 4 employees who believe empathy in their organizations is sufficient, indicating a wide and persistent gap between leadership and workers’ perceptions of just how empathetic their organization is.  

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Next Steps 

As the COVID-19 recovery continues and the nation looks ahead to what the new “new normal” looks like for the workforce, now is the time for employers to explore:  

  • Which benefits, policies, and programs employees rate most highly as empathetic.  
  • The pros and cons of remote work, including the potential impact to organizational culture and employee well-being.  
  • How employers can—and should— capitalize on their renewed commitment to workplace empathy as they move beyond the pandemic.  

To learn more about the how the pandemic left an indelible mark on the American workforce, read Empathy Endures Despite COVID-19 Impact below.