Businessolver Blog

The 24-Point Empathy Gap: A Great Divide Continues in the Workplace  

The 24-Point Empathy Gap: A Great Divide Continues in the Workplace  
Posted on Tuesday, May 16, 2023 by Jon Shanahan

As executives push for a return to the in-person office, employees and HR are both feeling the empathy gap widen between them and their CEOs. This divide is pushing many to their breaking point, resulting in burnout and low empathy perceptions. 

We’ve studied empathy in the workplace for eight years. Over that time, our data has underscored the importance of empathy on employee engagement, workplace culture, and organizational success.  

We’ve also watched empathy ebb and flow as the gap between executives and employees grows amidst shifting expectations for flexibility and workplace wellbeing support. 

Especially since the pandemic, many C-level executives agree with the principle of empathetic work cultures, but in reality, their HR teams and employees aren’t feeling the fruits of empathy efforts. Although 67% of CEOs believe they have become more empathetic since the pandemic, HR professionals and employees perceive their CEOs as having the lowest levels of empathy since we first started measuring this in 2017. 

There is clearly a communication gap that needs to be addressed. But the onus isn’t completely on CEOs—empathy is everyone’s work across an organization. 

Empathy hides in hard decisions at the executive level  

Though we anticipated a decline in empathy, we were taken aback by the significant shifts in the data since last year and the seriousness of the mental health situation in HR.  

Our latest State of Workplace Empathy Study reveals the greatest divide we’ve ever seen. Dropping 16 points in just one year, only 68% of HR professionals view their CEO as empathetic.  

In contrast, CEOs could be overly optimistic: 92% view their HR professionals as empathetic, a 27-point jump from 2022. This sky-high difference is meaningful, manifesting in disengaged employees who lack motivation and might migrate to a more empathetic organization. 

From DEIB efforts to flexible work arrangements and investing in the latest technologies, empathetic strategies prioritize the people that make up your organization over the bottom line. Though it can seem like an unwise business decision, executives must make those hard decisions to take care of employees for the long run.  

Return-to-office is driving a wedge between executives and employees 

Our empathy data reveals the majority of CEOs believe the push for in-person work is well-worth it: 63% report a positive impact on their mental wellbeing. However, considering the convenient commute and cost-savings that remote work brings, employees are not on board with the RTO initiative.  

Only 39% of HR professionals and 21% of employees share the same sentiment; 8 in 10 of these same people are willing to leave their current job for a more empathetic employer.  

This divide shows up in turnover rates, lack of motivation, increased absenteeism, and overall reduced engagement and productivity. On the other hand, workplace flexibility is one of the most effective ways to show employees empathy.   

Flexibility remains a top benefit for employees and HR 

Flexibility is not only crucial for work-life balance but also plays a significant role in mental health and DEIB initiatives. By forgoing the traditional 9-to-5 arrangement, employers open the door to diverse talent with unique backgrounds. 

For women who often take the lead in the caregiving responsibilities to veterans who may struggle with PTSD or anyone living paycheck-to-paycheck, flexibility can be the determining factor between employment and unemployment.  

When it comes to flexibility, executives and employees continue to have a difference of opinion in what is considered table stakes.  

For example, 9 in 10 employees have consistently asked for family-related benefits such as paid maternity and paternity leave and adjustable work schedules, yet less than half say they have these benefits currently offered at their organizations.  

As work evolves, empathy evolves 

Thriving in 2023 and beyond means embracing transparency and accountability in addition to patience and flexibility.  

To address these challenges, executives must actively seek honest feedback and understand the realities of the employee experience within their organization. Providing visibility into the decision-making process and supporting mental health and flexibility are essential steps toward fostering a more empathetic workplace. 

Keep in mind, closing the empathy gap is not solely the responsibility of leaders; it requires everyone at every level to embrace empathy and strive for a culture of understanding. CEOs, HR professionals, and employees alike need to put themselves in each other’s shoes and cultivate empathy in their interpersonal interactions throughout their daily lives. 

Our 2023 State of Workplace Empathy Report discusses the concerning empathy divide, particularly among HR professionals. Thankfully, the data reveals insights for a path forward to bridge the gap.