Fifth-annual study shows persistent disconnect between leaders and employees while values-based benefits and empathetic approaches to well-being become increasingly important
WEST DES MOINES, IOWA (August 4, 2020)—Businessolver®, a leader in SaaS-based benefits technology and services, today released the full findings from its fifth-annual State of Workplace Empathy Study. This survey of employees, HR professionals, and CEOs across six industries and four generations shows the evolution of how employees and leaders perceive empathy in the workplace. This year’s study proves that empathy at work remains crucially important, yet progress has stalled compared to previous years. While the study was fielded in Q1 of 2020, it reveals key learnings that are relevant now more than ever at a time of increased workforce challenges and economic uncertainty.
“With five years of data on hand, we know that empathy has become a foundational value in our workplaces,” says Businessolver President and CEO Jon Shanahan. “But the persistent disconnects between leaders and employees that we see in the study data, reinforce that more work needs to be done to ensure that empathy infuses our workplace cultures and makes a tangible impact on our workforce. It is even more critical given the increase in mental, physical, and financial stress that everyone is currently experiencing.”
The disconnect between CEOs and employees continues
Year over year, more than 90% of employees say empathy is important for organizations to demonstrate, but in early 2020, 68% said their organization was empathetic, a 10-point decline over the last two years. At the same time, 90% of CEOs believed their organization was empathetic—highlighting the growing gap between leaders and their workforce. With this gap recorded during a time of economic prosperity, the importance of bridging that gap is now heightened by the current environment.
The study shows further differences in how leaders and employees perceive the benefits of empathy, with CEOs saying it improves financial performance and employees indicating it drives motivation and productivity. Despite these differences, the 2020 study also reveals several consistent themes and new findings that leaders can leverage to bridge the empathy gap with their employees.
"This study proves that empathy at work continues to be paramount to employees, but as they see it declining, it threatens the cohesion and success of the workplace,” said Jamil Zaki of Stanford University, an associate professor of Psychology and organizer of the global Kindness Challenge. “Thankfully, more leaders and employees finally recognize empathy is a skill, which they can work on and improve. It will be up to individuals and organizations to practice empathy to bridge the current gap.”
Values-based benefits and investing in employees make a difference
Benefits have been a key factor in demonstrating empathy, as all years of data have shown. In the 2020 State of Workplace Empathy Study, the findings confirm that when benefits align to employees’ values, they increase the perception of empathy at work and offer a tangible way for employees to experience it. With the global health pandemic straining individuals on all fronts, benefits have an even greater role in bringing empathy to the workplace. This year’s study also explored new questions around career development and employee recognition, and it found that investing in employees is a vital part of creating empathetic workplaces.
Key findings include:
- 88% of employees considered flexible schedules to care for family members or the option to work remotely to be important or very important. While this number is reflective of individual’s responses pre-pandemic and many employees are now working from home, flexible schedules to care for family members will likely take on a renewed importance going into the 2020-2021 school year.
- Family leave benefits remain important: over 90% of employees say maternity/paternity leave, extended bereavement leave, and time to care for sick family members is empathetic.
- 95% of employees say employers should provide ongoing training opportunities. And large majorities state being able to take career skills and development courses on company time, rather than paid time off, is important.
- 93% of employees say that when their employer recognizes their professional accomplishments, it boosts their overall work productivity.
- Regardless of generation, nothing beats in-person communication, 94% of employees find this to be the most empathetic communication tool. This creates an interesting dynamic given the current landscape forcing digital communication across the workforce.
Overall employee well-being remains a crucial challenge
Over the past several years, Businessolver has been a champion of increasing the awareness around mental health and employee well-being at work. In the 2020 data, 96% of employees say mental health is as important as physical health, and in 2019 that number was 94%, capturing a growing year-over-year trend. Ninety-five percent of HR professionals and 93% of CEOs agreed. Yet sadly 76% of employees in 2020 say that employers view someone with a mental health issue as a burden.
The data shows that leaders must prioritize their employees’ total well-being, from physical wellness to mental health to financial preparedness, all of which impact each other. Concerningly, 97% of CEOs say all levels at their company are empathetic toward the mental health of employees, but only 69% of employees agree. This disconnect offers leaders the opportunity to emphasize values-based benefits that can help with flexibility, health coverage, and even emergency financial assistance.
“CEOs now have to embrace their dual role: as Chief Executive Officer and Chief Empathy Officer,” says Shanahan. “Taking the entire individual into account is a major step towards creating a culture of empathy now and in the future. With anxiety levels at all-time highs, this must become a top priority.”
Gen Z begins to shape workplace expectations
The 2020 State of Workplace Empathy Study added generational data on Gen Z, those born 1997 and later, who are entering the workforce at a precarious time. Key findings include that Gen Z employees are more likely to say their organization is empathetic (82%) compared to older generations (65-74%). Eight in 10 Gen Z employees believe diversity in leadership impacts empathy, and a large majority (82%) say using company time to volunteer for a social cause of their choosing is empathetic.
“Many may be tempted to think the introduction of Gen Z is part of the overall decline in how employees perceive their company’s empathy,” said Zaki. “However, as much as we are tempted to do that, this data proves that the younger cohort actually seems to perceive more empathy than their older counterparts.”
Understanding and meeting the expectations of this new cohort of employees can strengthen an empathetic culture that addresses current and emerging needs, similar to how Millennials’ expectations affected the workplace.
Five years of the value and impact of empathy
The 2020 State of Workplace Empathy Study reinforces that there is no one action or policy that can create an empathetic work culture. This multi-year and multi-dimensional store of data demonstrates that leaders must listen, communicate, and take action to instill empathy into the fabric of their organization. With the current health threat, economic uncertainty, and societal unrest impacting our personal and professional lives, taking concrete action to demonstrate empathy is no longer an option for employers.
To learn more about this year’s findings, read the 2020 State of Workplace Empathy Executive Summary. Follow and contribute to the social conversation at #EmpathyAtWork.
You can also read our 2020 special reports on Workplace Empathy: What Leaders Don’t Know Can Hurt Them and Empathy + Benefits: The Key Combination for Supporting Employee Mental Health.
These findings are part of the fifth annual State of Workplace Empathy study of more than 1,900 U.S. employees, HR professionals and CEOs that evaluates the state of empathy in American workplaces, conducted by Businessolver in Q1 of 2020.
To learn more about the Kindness Challenge, kicking off August 10, visit bit.ly/kindnesschallenge2020.
Since 1998, Businessolver has delivered market-changing benefits technology and services supported by an intrinsic responsiveness to client needs. The company creates client programs that maximize benefits program investment, minimize risk exposure, and engage employees with easy-to-use solutions and communication tools to assist them in making wise and cost-efficient benefits selections. Founded by HR professionals, Businessolver’s unwavering service-oriented culture and secure SaaS platform provide measurable success in its mission to provide complete client delight.
Matthew Smedley, Edelman (on behalf of Businessolver)