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How to Put Empathy into Action for Your Workplace

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By Rae Shanahan, Chief Strategy Officer
 on June 14, 2024

Mental health is in a decline and workplace toxicity is on the rise. What will it take for organizations to embed empathy into their culture to support wellbeing and organizational success? 

Everyone values empathetic behaviors in the workplace, but there are persistent gapes between all audiences, especially employees and CEOs, around what it looks like to put that empathy into action.  

This year, our study found that mental health issues continue to persist due to the empathy gaps—half of all audiences say they’ve experienced a mental health issue in the past year. And there’s another instigator to workplace tensions and the empathy gap: Half of all CEOs and 1 in 3 employees and HR professionals view their workplace as toxic. 

Our latest webinar on June 12 hosted a panel of empathy and workplace experts to discuss what empathy in the workplace looks like, how benefits play a key role, and who owns putting empathy into action. Here’s a closer look at our findings.  

Missed the webinar? Hear from our panel of empathy and workplace culture experts about what they’re seeing in their organizations and how they’ve put empathy into action in our on-demand recording or download the deck

Read the full empathy report:  

Flexibility is still one of the top benefits. But 2 in 3 employees say they don’t have it 

“Flexibility is a huge part of the overall employee total rewards package. It’s the leave programs, the flexibility, the policies in place. It’s part of the entire experience portfolio. Everyone has different needs, different access points. So we have to think about the multitude of experiences or life events that people are experiencing and support them with resources, like flexibility.” 

Kathleen O’Driscoll, Vice President Human Resources, Global Benefits, Wellbeing, and HR Policy at Cognizant 

Flexibility-based and time-off benefits sit at the top of the list of benefits employees say demonstrate the most empathy at work—even over annual compensation increases. These benefits include flexible work hours and work location, wellness days or weeks, and paid leave. But while these benefits are viewed as highly empathetic, 62% of employees say their employer doesn’t offer these benefits.  

Empathetic benefits, such as flexibility, are essentially table-stakes for employees as they seek out workplaces that support and empower employees to strike a balance between work life and personal life:  

  • 52% of employees say they would be willing to take slightly less pay for a more empathetic employer  
  • 66% of employees said they would consider leaving their current organization if they were offered a role with a more empathetic employer. 

Tune in to the 25:00 mark in the on-demand recording to hear our panel talk about why flexibility matters for employee wellbeing. 

Workplace toxicity increases likelihood of mental health issues

Mental wellbeing sits alongside flexibility on the list of employees’ empathy needs in the workplace. 9 in 10 employees agree that mental health is just as important as physical health.  

However, our data revealed that mental wellbeing continues to decline: 50% of employees experienced a mental health issue in the past year. Worse, those who view their workplace as toxic are 47% more likely to experience a mental health issue.  

Workplace toxicity is closely tied to the widening empathy gap and a mental health stigma:  

  • 35% of employees and 52% of CEOs view their workplace as toxic 
  • 67% of employees and 81% of CEOs agree that companies view someone with mental health issue as weak or a burden 
  • 31% of employees and 65% of CEOs say they feel intimidated by their coworkers  

Tune in to the 15:30 mark in the on-demand recording to hear our panel talk about how toxicity harms mental health and psychological safety. 

Everyone must own empathy, but managers have the most impact for employees

“Managers influence thriving by recognizing their employees, creating a psychologically safe environment, helping employees understand their expectations and priorities…Empathy is not just about being nice and kind, it’s about being clear. Clear is kind.” 

Sonja Kellen, General Manager, Global Health and Wellbeing at Microsoft 

Our study suggests that people managers have the most impact on driving perceptions of empathy for employees. And this makes sense—employees spend more time with their managers and direct colleagues than they do their HR teams or the C-suite.  

Career development, work-life balance, and community building make up the three core pillars of empathy in the workplace. The top behaviors employees want and need in an empathetic workplace are often directly tied to a manager-employee relationship: 

  • Making time for 1:1 conversations 
  • Understanding the need for time off and balancing home and work life 
  • Going the extra mile to help someone meet an immediate deadline 

Managers are crucial to fostering a culture of empathy: 38% of employees and 33% of HR professionals see managers as key to building an empathetic culture, but for empathy to permeate an organization, everyone plays a critical role. 

Tune in to the 6:30 mark to hear our panel talk about how leaders have the greatest impact on building a culture of empathy. 

How to close the empathy gap in your organization  

While best practices for empathy exist, many organizations are still challenged to build it into their culture. This year’s empathy report shows that the foundation for building an empathetic culture rests on supporting employees with behaviors that fall into in three distinct categories: professional, whole person, and community. 

  1. Support the professional: Creating a workplace that attracts and retains top talent starts with cultivating talent. This is perhaps the “easiest” pillar for workplaces to focus on, but also requires the most finesse. Professional development spans far, from creating personalized career roadmaps to embracing the benefits of unique and personal work styles. 
  1. Support the whole person: Respecting the need for flexibility—and the different ways people need it—creates more space for people to thrive both at work and outside of work. When people can show up as their best, happiest, and healthiest selves, they can do their best work and feel more fulfilled in doing so. 
  1. Support their community: Everyone craves a sense of belonging within their teams, workplaces, and communities. Organizational initiatives that embrace community—not just individuals—go a long way in taking empathetic behaviors to the next level. This support includes DEIB initiatives, mental health resources, and advocating for each other. This work requires real authenticity, and commitment, to build a functional culture at work. 

It’s important to recognize that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to empathy. While our findings reveal the behaviors most strongly correlated with positive perceptions of empathy in organizations, it’s clear people have different empathy needs and expectations.  

Learn more about our findings in our 2024 State of Workplace Empathy report: