Strategic HR

Empathy: The Solution to Employees’ Engagement Crisis

I love coming to work every day. You might say I’m lucky—especially when you consider Gallup finds that only one-third of U.S. employees are engaged at work. But I’ll let you in on a secret: Creating a positive workplace that you and your employees love is attainable—and more critical than ever.empathy

Despite a minor ebb and flow, the number of engaged employees—people who are enthusiastic and committed to their work and workplace—has remained stagnant for years, accounting for about 30% of the U.S. workforce. According to Gallup, that lack of engagement in dollars is an estimated $600 billion in lost productivity.

Even under the best economic circumstances, no company can afford to lose that amount. Employee engagement, or lack thereof, is at crisis levels. The good news is there is one word on which organizations can build a different culture and a strategy to reengage the workforce: Empathy.

The Meaning of Empathy

Empathy isn’t just an emotional component of a successful friendship or relationship. Workplace empathy is the cornerstone of good business, and the 2017 Businessolver Workplace Empathy Monitor shows it can have a profoundly positive effect on employee well-being, and in turn, business health.

The Workplace Empathy Monitor is the second annual survey of nearly 2,000 U.S. employees, CEOs, and HR professionals that evaluates the state of empathy in the workplace. We were inspired to launch the study in 2016 because at Businessolver, empathy is woven into our culture.

Every morning, our team comes together for a stand-up meeting, during which each team member talks about something that excites or motivates them—and it doesn’t have to be work-related.

These are my favorite meetings each day; as a leader, I find them particularly insightful because they allow me to practice empathy by putting myself in my employees’ shoes. They’ve become an important way for us to connect on a human level, and for me to better understand employees’ feelings and needs to drive a more engaged workforce and a better workplace experience.

The Value of Empathy 

So, is empathy really all it’s cracked up to be? Simply put, yes. The Workplace Empathy Monitor reveals it has the power to drive retention and foster productivity.

Specifically, our data shows that 92% of employees and 98% of HR professionals say an empathetic employer drives retention, and 75% of all respondents would leave their organization if it became less empathetic.

What’s more, nearly 80% of employees would be willing to work longer hours for an employer they perceived as empathetic, and 60% of employees would actually take a pay cut to work for a more empathetic employer.

The Recipe for Empathy

Fostering an empathetic culture isn’t always a seamless process. One of the biggest challenges is closing the “empathy gap”—the difference in how employers and employees define empathy, value it, and demonstrate it. We found that 9 in 10 respondents agree that workplace empathy is important.

Yet, most employees think it’s desperately lacking: Only 49% rate U.S. organizations as empathetic and 85% say empathy is undervalued by U.S. businesses. Further, 80% of employees think that empathy in the workplace needs to evolve, versus 57% of CEOs.

With employee engagement levels steadfastly low and skilled labor in high demand, employers have to do more to recruit and retain top talent, and empathy must be a part of the strategy. Here are three dos and don’ts we’ve found to be successful:

Don’t assume—ask. Often, people think the best way to demonstrate empathy is to imagine what others want, but leaders don’t spend enough time simply asking employees, then listening. Leaders must do their part to overcome this by engaging employees for feedback and using it to better understand how they can meet their needs.

Do focus on programs rather than perks. Interestingly, the Workplace Empathy Monitor found that even though many leaders think fun and flashy perks will do the trick, the reality is, they miss the mark for many employees.

Sure, employees enjoy happy hours, in-office spa services and team bonding opportunities; I can’t blame them—I do, too! To really demonstrate empathy, however, employers must focus on offering or strengthening traditional benefits.

Our data shows that 95% of employees want better healthcare packages that account for physical and mental health, as well as more autonomy—including the ability to work remotely and have more flexible work hours. Though offerings like these can require an investment or culture shift, the payoff can be tremendous and show employees their best interests are a top priority.

Do practice what you preach. Finally, empathy education must be a part of organizations’ plans. Empathy isn’t necessarily an inherent trait. With that in mind, employees and managers need to be trained on what empathy is and how it can be demonstrated.

For example, the Workplace Empathy Monitor finds the top behaviors that show empathy include treating everyone with respect, exhibiting care, and making time to talk one-on-one. In addition to training and behavior, leaders should inspire employees to weave empathy into the fabric of their organization’s daily operations.

There’s no question that U.S. workplaces are in distress. But through empathy, organizations can unlock the potential of today’s workforce and create more engaging, productive workplaces.

Rae Shanahan
Rae Shanahan is the chief strategy officer at Businessolver—a benefits administration technology company that combines a configurable SaaS platform with a high-touch service model. She is responsible for providing strategic direction related to business excellence, training, client engagement, and product development. In addition, Rae leads the organizational focus on delivering delight to Businessolver employees and clients.