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How COVID-19 Changed Empathy in the Workplace—and What Leaders Can Do Next

How COVID-19 Changed Empathy in the Workplace—and What Leaders Can Do Next
Posted on Thursday, May 6, 2021 by Jon Shanahan

Earlier this year, I addressed Solver Nation regarding lessons learned one year into the COVID-19 pandemic.


I eagerly launched into my presentation, only to realize a few moments later an awkward problem: I was on mute.

The moment served as a reminder that, now more than ever, we need to practice patience with ourselves and others in the unending pursuit of workplace empathy. It’s also a metaphor for how well-meaning leaders can still end up speaking into an echo chamber and failing to reach all employees.

At Businessolver, we recently published the results of our sixth annual State of Workplace Empathy Study, revealing trends in workplace empathy after a year of the pandemic. In spite of the transition to virtual or socially distant work environments and the incredible fatigue of the past year, there is a bright spot to report: After years of decline, empathy in the workplace is on the rebound.

In workplaces, people are finally having challenging but necessary conversations around flexibility; mental health; and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). At the same time, our data reveals gaps between how leaders believe their companies’ demonstrate empathy and how employees are feeling it. For example:

  • The workforce agrees that mental health is as important as physical health, but there is a dire need to dismantle stigma. 66% of employees, 75% of HR professionals, and 82% of CEOs believe that someone with a mental health issue is viewed as weak or as a burden by companies.
  • Employees, HR professionals, and CEOs acknowledge that companies must take action and make changes to amplify DEI, but these programs are not always visible to all employees. There is a 26-percentage point gap between employees and CEOs who say DEI programs have become more visible in their companies in the past year, suggesting that communication is not spreading throughout organizations.
  • CEOs and HR professionals are especially struggling to bridge the empathy gap. Employee empathy ratings of their companies and CEOs rebounded in 2021, likely as a result of their response to the pandemic. Yet, 70% of CEOs say it is hard to show empathy, up 29 points from last year. And 53% of HR professionals agree, up 13 points from last year.

Surely employers have been challenged over the past year like never before. Grappling with the pandemic and a renewed racial and social justice movement has adjusted expectations and raised the stakes for employers. Even as the end of the pandemic is in sight, leaders must strive to meet employees’ new expectations by continuing to evolve their organization’s state of empathy.

So where to begin?

First, it is incumbent on leaders to listen and respond to employees’ changing needs. We’ve seen more CEOs this year speak out on societal issues. But importantly, they must focus inward to create inclusive cultures, humanize mental health issues to remove the associated stigma, and build bridges to let all employees know DEI is an organizational priority. At Businessolver, we have outlined some empathetic actions that employers can take:

  • The 2021 State of Workplace Empathy Executive Summary examines trends we have seen over the course of the pandemic and the past six years. It investigates specific benefits, such as remote working and mental health services, and looks at segments of the workforce, like Generation Z. It offers guidance for anyone attempting to navigate empathetic workplaces in an unprecedented year.
  • Our recent white paper, Declining Mental Health Requires Employer Empathy, offers five recommendations for employers to incorporate into their long-term strategy to shape a workplace that is better supports employees’ mental well-being.
  • The comprehensive Mental Health Toolkit offers a single hub for a variety of resources and how-to guides—from practical advice for reducing burnout to symptoms checklists, helplines, and a curated list of service providers.

Finally, I encourage everyone, especially leaders, to join the dialogue on empathy in the workplace. Year after year, CEOs say they fear that demonstrating empathy will cause them to be less respected. But it’s our responsibility to use our privilege and our platform to speak out on the issues, even when they reveal our vulnerabilities. This is easier said than done, but trust me when I say that it feels especially good to unmute on this topic.

Certainly, this road has not been easy. As a leader, it was not natural or intuitive for me to commit to work-from-home flexibility for all employees indefinitely or offer unlimited paid time off—but both changes have helped our Solvers’ maintain their motivation, productivity, and well-being. This year we also conducted an internal DEI assessment to help us focus our efforts moving forward. Doing the tough work on DEI has been as humbling as it is important, but this process is foundational to helping our people feel valued and included.

I’m optimistic about the outlook of empathy in the workplace, and I look forward to further advancing our state of empathy through the end of the pandemic and beyond. And one of these days, I’ll consistently get that mute button right.

Learn more to help your organization improve the state of empathy.