What Helps Retain Staff in a New-Normal Workplace

A new study shows an empathy disconnect between workers and executives. A stronger focus on skills development might close the gap.

How are you doing? Also: Remember when that was a rhetorical question?

There’s no need to rattle off the many stressors that 2020 has brought upon leaders and their employees. But it might be worth noting that, even before COVID-19 became a part of our public consciousness, there has been a substantial disconnect between how leaders think their people are doing, and how they actually are.

The fifth and most recent edition of Businessolver’s State of Workplace Empathy report was conducted in February, and it demonstrates, as usual, that there’s a lot of enthusiasm in the C-suite for the concept of empathy, defined as “the ability to understand and experience the feelings of another.” Every year since the study launched in 2017, more than 90 percent of CEOs and HR heads have said empathy is important. But that doesn’t mean employees think leaders are putting their hearts into that sentiment. While 86 percent of CEO say they think their organization “is openly discussing mental health,” according to the new survey, only 58 percent of employees agree.

Benefits based on values were important before the pandemic, but now they’re even more critical.

Moreover, leaders seem to be missing the connection between empathy and retention. While 76 percent of employees said they believe empathy plays a role in turnover rates, only 40 percent of CEOs said so. Executives neglect this disparity at their peril, especially with Gen Z workers. According to the report, 83 percent of Gen Z respondents said they’d opt for an employer “with a strong culture of empathy” over one offering a slightly higher salary—more than the average of 75 percent among all employees.

Again, all of these findings reflect how people were feeling in February. Since then, there’s ample evidence that the pandemic has boosted employee engagement, but that may be a function of people eager to demonstrate their value in a down economy on top of a crisis. Which is to say that, between Zoom fatigue and more caregiving responsibilities, the risk of burnout is substantial. All the more reason to take that empathy gap more seriously. As the Businessolver report puts it, “benefits based on values were important for employee well-being before the pandemic, but now they’re even more critical.”

The report suggests that today’s CEO needs to behave more like a “chief empathy officer,” a leader who is more adept at communication and creates more opportunities for one-on-one engagement. But a listening tour alone isn’t going to cut it; the report also recommends that organizations put a stronger emphasis on wellness benefits and, more substantially, on career development for employees. Ninety percent of all employees surveyed said they equated workplace empathy with being allowed to “participate in career development courses on company time, rather than PTO.” But employees are four times as likely as CEOs to believe their organizations don’t provide enough skills development.

The last recession suggested that employer support for that kind of skills development softens in a downturn—for instance, companies were less likely to cover the cost of employees’ association dues or conference travel. Investing in skills training during a crisis may seem like one of those things that just isn’t done. But in February 2020, few were convinced that remote work was practical either. Despite that, organizations have stubbornly, stumblingly, glitchily figured out how to make it work.

Everybody wants an empathetic workplace environment. But a genuine investment in workers’ skills and abilities is more likely than lip service to keep those workers engaged, and sticking around.

(Brothers91/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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