2020 State of Workplace Empathy

Executive Summary | Fifth Annual Study

Businessolver’s 5th annual report on the State of Workplace Empathy

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Introduction: The State of Workplace Empathy: Vital but Stalled

As the world continues to grapple with a pandemic and its associated economic uncertainty, our employees’ health and well-being are facing pressures they haven’t encountered in generations. In addition, society is increasingly acknowledging and seeking accountability for long-standing systemic inequity, underscored by a public health crisis and a growing social justice movement. Many of us are now recognizing the need to embrace a stronger focus on empathy for the well-being of everyone, including our colleagues.

At Businessolver, we have examined the evolution of empathy in the workplace for five years through our State of Workplace Empathy Study. Our 2020 findings reveal that while empathy’s value in the workplace has risen over the years, on the doorstep of these challenging times, progress has stalled.

Even so, our study has unearthed consistent findings that serve as lessons learned from the past and as a guide for a workplace that has been, and will continue to be, altered for years to come:

  • Employees, HR professionals and CEOs see workplace empathy as universally important since our study’s beginnings.
  • Empathy is consistently tied to business impact.
  • Some gaps persist in how empathy is perceived and experienced by members of the workplace, especially between employees and executives.
  • Benefits play a role in building a culture of empathy and supporting an employee’s overall well-being.
  • There is hope for the future, as all groups believe that empathy can be learned.

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About this Report

Since 2016, our State of Workplace Empathy research has been fielded during the month of February each year. This past February was no different. We set our parameters, determined our topics, and went to work with our third-party research partner. Little did we know how much everything would change in just one month’s time.

When we collected the responses for our 2020 study, we were in a state of economic prosperity and relative certainty for the year and the decade ahead. Today, we are all facing a much different landscape, where telework is the norm, the term ‘essential workers’ has new meaning and mental health has never been more prominently discussed.

The results of this study provide us with a snapshot in time, and what we found is more relevant now than it’s ever been. Knowing this information will help us better understand what our employees need and what is important to them, as they face unprecedented levels of mental, physical and financial stress.

Employees are depending on their employers to deliver empathy while helping them overcome, adapt and move forward. Even though these results were collected pre-pandemic, they are a stark reminder that empathy always has a place, a time and a need in our workforce. Now more than ever.

Part 2: Executives are Unaware of What Employees Value from Empathy

Executive leaders have long been thought of as the face of an organization and the ones who set the cultural tone, and that has never been clearer than it is in 2020. Today, leaders are expected to publicly respond to the human and financial impacts of our current landscape and are subject to heightened scrutiny for their words and how they steer their organizations.

Five years of data from Businessolver’s State of Workplace Empathy Study demonstrates the increasing importance and impact of those who lead with empathy. Data from the 2020 study underscores leaders’ unique position going forward: It’s time for CEOs to embrace their dual role, as Chief Executive Officer and Chief Empathy Officer.

Despite differences, CEOs and employees agree that empathy can be learned. All participants in today’s workplaces should be encouraged by opportunities to enrich a culture of empathy through cross-functional, cross-generational empathy training and development. The rate of employees who say empathy can be learned is growing.

Part 3: Benefits Must Align to Employees’ Values

The concept of work-life balance isn’t new, but in today’s environment, it has a new meaning. For “essential” and frontline workers, home life may be a respite from challenging dynamics at work and in public; for those working from home, “work” and “life” have become more intertwined than ever before. Employees need empathetic benefits that support them as people, not just workers. In our current state, there is no room for disconnect between values and benefits.

Data from 2020 shows that employees are drawn to values-based benefits that are tangible, including flexibility at work, leave and compensation, and volunteer benefits. Yet there remains a disconnect between leadership and employees around what benefits are offered by their organization.

Promoting a balance between work and life starts at the top and requires personalization. Leaders have a vital role to play in determining how their benefits offerings address the values of their employees and their organization as a whole.

They can help make the difference between an organization that professes empathy versus one that practices it. As Chief Empathy Officer, the CEO must understand what their employees view as empathetic benefits. This may have different answers across industries, roles, and even generations.


Conclusion: Empathy is Vital to Build Today’s Resilient Workplaces

As we’ve seen over five years of our State of Workplace Empathy Study, there is no one tactic guaranteed to create an empathetic workplace or culture. Given the challenges we’re currently facing—physical and mental health risks, social unrest, individual financial challenges, and overall economic uncertainty—it’s paramount that organizations consider wide-ranging solutions that incorporate a variety of approaches. In a complex business and economic environment, this mix of empathetic practices will be required to build resilient workforces and foster ongoing workplace connection.

Here are steps that leaders can take to make a difference now:

  • Open the lines of communication to leadership.
  • Empower change agents.
  • Promote a values-based approach to benefits.
  • Emphasize the whole person and their overall well-being.
  • Embrace new generational perspectives to improve empathy for all.


Part 1: Empathy Drives Business Impact Through Motivation and Productivity—Yet a Gap Still Exists between Employees and CEOs

Building a culture of empathy cannot take a back seat to other key drivers of business—because empathy itself is a driver of business impact and performance. In fact, in 2020, 76% of employees believe an empathetic organization inspires more motivated employees, compared to 65% who said the same in 2019. Yet only about 50% of CEOs agreed that empathy drives productivity and motivation. This gap calls out the disconnect related to the impact of workplace empathy, especially since 82% of CEOs believe a company’s financial performance is tied to empathy.

Year over year, empathy continues to play a key role for employees considering where they would take employment, their salary, their work effort, and whether they will stay at their current organization.

  • 83% of Gen Z employees would choose an employer with a strong culture of empathy over an employer offering a slightly higher salary, versus 75% of employees on average.
  • 79% would choose an empathetic employer even if it meant changing their role, industry or career path, versus 73% of employees on average.
  • 83% would consider leaving their current organization for a similar role at a more empathetic organization.

Part 4: Employees Demand Skills and Career Development, and Expect Ongoing Programs

Building a resilient workforce with the skills they need has always been a must for the empathetic employer, regardless of economic conditions. The 2020 study found 9 out of 10 employees, HR professionals, and CEOs believe organizations that offer skills and professional development programs and invest in their employees are more empathetic. Investment in these programs must be longitudinal to have an impact:

  • 95% of employees consider employer-provided training on an ongoing basis as important.
  • 90% of employees say organizations are empathetic when they allow employees to participate in career development courses on company time, rather than PTO.


Despite nearly universal agreement that career investment from employers is empathetic, there are differences between how leadership and employees experience these programs in practice. Employees are four times more likely than CEOs to believe their employer doesn’t provide enough skills development: only 8% of CEOs believe this to be the case, compared with 34% of employees. CEOs may be closer to the selection and development of these programs, but should not overlook promotion and awareness-building among employees..

Learn more about the importance of career development in the full executive summary.


Part 5: Reward and Recognition Fuel Empathy, but They’re Lacking in the Workplace

Employers are currently being asked to do more for employees with fewer resources at their disposal, and likewise, employees have never before been asked to exhibit such adaptability and commitment to work. Workplace empathy requires an acknowledgement of both of these factors.

The call is clear: 9 in 10 employees believe organizations that recognize employees for professional and personal accomplishments are more empathetic. Employees’ conception of recognition includes both monetary and feedback-based rewards—yet employees view both as lacking in their workplaces. Forty-one percent of employees report that their employer does not provide enough recognition to their employees, but only 8% of CEOs agree. Given this disconnect, employers must take action.

  • 93% of employees say that when their employer recognizes their professional accomplishments, it boosts their overall work productivity.
  • 92% of employees believe that recognition also increases the likelihood of retaining employees.

It’s a difficult moment for employers to implement new recognition programs into their operations. Yet this year’s study reveals that simply taking a moment to be appreciative of each other in this new climate, and expressing that appreciation through available channels, goes a long way toward employee satisfaction and retention.


Part 6: Employee Well-Being Matters More Than Ever: Mental, Physical and Financial

Fostering an empathetic culture and offering the right benefits for your workforce can’t be done in a vacuum. It must account for the overall well-being of an employee population—mental, physical and financial.

At Businessolver, we’ve seen the importance of mental well-being in years’ worth of data. This was true before the pandemic, but now it’s front and center. Social isolation, economic uncertainty, and the threat of a dangerous virus have added new levels of pressure on employees’ mental health. And the data bears this out. Ninety-six percent of employees say that mental health is just as important as physical health, and last year that number was at 94%.

Despite widespread agreement and some increased awareness around the importance of supporting mental health, stigmas persist in the workplace.

  • 64% of employees say reaching out to HR or leadership about a mental health issue could negatively impact their job security, down from last year’s 68%.
  • Similarly, 76% of employees say companies view someone with a mental health issue as a burden, a 3% decrease since 2019.

Fostering an empathetic culture means starting at the top with creating a culture of well-being. This includes emphasizing the benefits available to support mental and physical health, as well as financial well-being. Opening the lines of communication around this issue—especially during a period where it’s top of mind for most people—will go a long way to building these critical elements of empathy across industries and demographics.

Part 7: Gen Z’s Expectations Are Beginning to Shape Workplace Expectations

A striking milestone in this year’s data is the addition of Gen Z for the first time in the study’s history. While generational differences aren’t all-encompassing, the initial trends we see from younger employees tend to represent trends that will become more solid expectations from workers over time. The goal of studying these generational shifts is to find the programs that can offer new solutions that benefit employees of all age groups.

Gen Z’s introduction to the empathy study revealed the following:

  • 61% of Gen Z employees find it important that their organization have political influence, which also speaks to the emphasis they place on social causes—82% say using company time to volunteer for a social cause of their choosing is empathetic.
  • At least 8 in 10 Gen Z employees feel that having ethnically diverse leaders and women in leadership makes an impact on a more empathetic organization.

Learn more about Gen Z and their entrance to the workforce here.


To learn more about the 2020 State of Workplace Empathy, download the full report here.

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