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Empathy in the Workplace – How Far We’ve Come

Empathy in the Workplace – How Far We’ve Come
Posted on Tuesday, November 5, 2019 by Rae Shanahan
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When the team here at Businessolver embarked on the inaugural State of Workplace Empathy Study in 2016, our goal was to discover how one of our key values, empathy, was related to trends in the world of work.

Empathy-in-the-workplace

At the time, a new degree of political uncertainty and market instability were leading to employee dissatisfaction, disengagement and high turnover at work.

Could empathy be the missing component? We started asking questions: Were leaders making decisions from an empathetic viewpoint? Did employees feel understood and valued by their employers? What benefits and cultural qualities mattered most to different groups at work?

We had observed the power of empathy in our own work and its part in our clients’ successes, but we had no idea what a powerful transformation was underway.

At the start, the State of Workplace Empathy Study focused on how employees and leaders perceive empathy, and its true impact on building connected teams and effective businesses. The need for an empathy revolution was clear: in 2017, 85% of employees surveyed believe that empathy was undervalued by US organizations.

With developments in workplace news from the growing voice of labor movements, to the exposure of employee mistreatment, illustrated that empathy was more than a ‘nice-to-have’ cultural concern—it was a centerpiece to effective businesses.

Today, with the need for empathy more commonly understood, Businessolver has been able to dial in on its more detailed dimensions, such as perception by gender, differences between industries, the impact of benefits and the importance of workplace diversity.

As the end of 2019 approaches, we’re revisiting the findings from this year and reflecting on how far the workplace has come in centering empathy as a key value. These trends demonstrate that empathy is here to stay—and where there’s work to be done in 2020:

CEOs are clued in about the need for empathy.

In the 2017 study, only 57% of CEOs believed that there needed to be an empathy revolution. By the 2019 study, that number increased 15 points to 72%. In other words, empathy caught on. CEOs such as Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and Ford’s Alan Mulally have made public statements naming empathy as a key workplace value. This top-down approach to building empathy is significant, but even the closing of this gap doesn’t mean leaders now see eye-to-eye with their employees.

There’s more work to be done, particularly from the perspective of employees.

Two years back in 2017, 71% of employees reported that their organization was empathetic, and yet despite the vigorous public conversation on the topic and the increase in CEO awareness, that same data point increased only 1% by 2019. Meanwhile, CEOs see things differently: 91% believed their organizations to be empathetic in 2017, with an increase to 92% in 2019. Despite the work that has been done to raise employers’ empathy profiles, a disconnect persists.

The desire for empathy remains constant.

In empathy data, what hasn’t changed is equally revealing. Since 2017 the number of employees, HR professionals, and CEOs who believe that it’s important for an organization to demonstrate empathy has remained virtually unchanged, at 9 of 10 individuals. The need for empathy is human, and it’s not going away.

In 2020, the challenge will be for organizations to determine which factors directly impact their workplaces, such as the need for benefits that speak to a multi-generational workforce or those that support part-time workers as the gig economy expands.

The Businessolver’s 2019 State of Workplace Empathy Study sought to bridge the gap between leadership and employees to drive better business outcomes, while rooting these approaches in a respect for empathy’s importance. As the state of empathy evolves over time, we look forward to adding more dimensions to this ever-evolving set of data.

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