Following more than a year in which work and personal lines were severely blurred, causing employee burnout and leading to the “Great Resignation,” new research from global nonprofit Catalyst indicates that empathy — understanding and sharing the feelings of another — “is a business imperative for companies and leaders in the future of work,” according to a press release.
“Empathic leaders understand that empathy is not just a ‘nice-to-have’ or ‘feel-good’ quality,” said Catalyst Director and Statistician Tara Van Bommel, who authored the study. “It is an essential skill that is immensely valuable in the future of work. The ability to connect deeply and understand unique perspectives and experiences is a skill that is not automatable and helps people navigate the uncertainty and disruption to come.”
This study in particular defines an empathic leader as “one who demonstrates care, concern and understanding for employees’ life circumstances, particularly in the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Using this definition, the study found that empathic leaders were critical in helping employees adjust to shifting life-work obligations and cope with pandemic-related stress, and that empathy on the part of both senior leaders and managers increased feelings of being respected and valued across gender, race and ethnicity. Overall, 86 percent of employees whose senior leaders expressed empathy felt that their company valued and respected their life circumstances.
As for innovation and engagement, the study found that:
- 61 percent of people with highly empathic senior leaders report often or always being innovative at work, compared to only 13 percent of people with less empathic senior leaders.
- 76 percent of people with highly empathic senior leaders report often or always being engaged, compared to only 32 percent of people with less empathic senior leaders.
- 47 percent of people with highly empathic managers report often or always being innovative at work, compared to only 13 percent of people with less empathic managers.
- 67 percent of people with highly empathic managers report often or always being engaged, compared to only 24 percent of people with less empathic managers.
And when company leaders show empathy, it also helps reduce intent to leave and burnout. In fact, 60 percent of survey respondents reported experiencing burnout, which negatively affects employee productivity, engagement and organizational commitment. Interestingly, empathy in senior leadership only impacted Arab, Asian, Black, Indigenous and Latinx women who were experiencing burnout; those with highly empathic senior leaders were less likely to report high levels of workplace burnout (54 percent) compared to those with less empathic senior leaders (67 percent). That relationship did not exist for men of color, white women or white men.
In addition, women with highly empathic managers experienced less COVID-19-related burnout at work (54 percent) than women with less empathic managers (63 percent). Burnout in male respondents, however, was not affected by empathetic managers.
As for the Great Resignation, 33 percent of women of color who had less empathic senior leaders thought about leaving their organization versus only 18 percent of women of color who had highly empathic senior leaders.
The study also underscores that empathy is a skill anyone can build and outlines some actions leaders can take to be empathic to create a more innovative, engaged and inclusive company culture:
- Imagine how a colleague is feeling from their perspective;
- Communicate similar emotions back to your colleague; and
- Demonstrate active listening and a desire to understand more about your colleagues’ feelings, experiences or reactions.
Jessica Mulholland, Managing Editor, CalChamber