How to Cultivate Empathy in the Workplace

A new report finds that employees feel their workplaces are less empathetic. To help staff feel like the environment is empathetic, leaders should prioritize mental health, flexibility, and diversity.

With all the turmoil going on in the world, workers are looking for a little empathy when working. However, according to the 2022 State of Workplace Empathy Study conducted by Businessolver, employees believe their workplaces are less empathetic than last year.

While the dip in empathy is small overall—just 3 percentage points—it’s showing some significant concerns among certain groups of workers.

“What’s leading the employee perception that workplace empathy is on the decline is that it is—at least in the ways that employees are asking to see it, particularly regarding flexible work, mental health support, and financial wellness,” said Jon Shanahan, CEO of Businessolver. “This shift in employee needs is largely being driven by gen Z. Far less than half (39 percent) of gen Z employees perceive CEOs as empathetic; this represents chief executives’ lowest rating among any generation and a sharp (18 point) decline from last year.”

Maybe gen Z is picking up on some nonverbal cues because it turns out that leaders are struggling with empathy too. The study found that 69 percent of CEOs believe their job duties include cultivating empathy in the workplace, but 79 percent say they struggle to be empathetic and 77 percent “worry they’ll lose respect if they’re too empathetic.”

Building an Empathetic Workplace

With shifting employee perceptions around empathy, as well as concerns from CEOs about how to be empathetic, its’ clear that changes need to be made. Shanahan said the best path forward starts with cultivating empathy.

“CEOs overwhelmingly agree that an organization’s financial performance is directly tied to empathy,” Shanahan said. “As a result, CEOs and executives should focus on cultivating an empathetic workplace through expanding diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives; prioritizing mental health; and offering a flexible work schedule to attract and retain the best talent, amidst an uncertain economic and labor market.”

CEOs should also avoid creating the perception that they lack empathy. For example, Tesla CEO Elon Musk was criticized as unempathetic for demanding employees return to the office five days a week or look for work elsewhere. While that’s an extreme version of what not to do to cultivate empathy, there are less obvious mistakes CEOs can make when it comes to empathy.

“One big misstep that happened during the early days of the pandemic was applying in-office work styles and schedules to remote work,” Shanahan said. “Employees ended up simply taking commuting time and lunch hour or ‘watercooler’ breaks and filling that time with more work. Looking back, it’s not hard to see why many employees are fleeing from burnout.”

While people are still navigating this new world of work, Shanahan shared a three-pronged approach that can help make most workplaces more empathetic:

Move the conversation beyond the bottom line. “Our mindset should be to turn attitude into action,” he said. “By prioritizing empathy-based discussions, CEOs and leaders can cultivate more motivated workplaces that result in faster business growth.”

Make mental health a top-down priority. “Stress that empathy doesn’t equal showing weakness,” Shanahan said. “Make it the standard to reach out to people at work for support with managing mental health. Reduce the stigma across the entire workforce.”

Align benefits with employee needs. “Employees value flexibility as a key aspect of managing and maintaining their mental health,” Shanahan said. “As employers work to expand their benefit offerings, policies, and culture, it’s critical they align their efforts with what their employees are voicing.”

What steps has your association taken to make the workplace more empathetic? Please share in the comments.

(SDI Productions/iStock/Getty Images)

Rasheeda Childress

By Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now. MORE

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