Where Has All the Empathy Gone?
As we start our new year, the national angst continues. The economic and mental distress spurred by the coronavirus pandemic has dominated our lives and so many people are fed up and unsure of how to cope anymore.
As part of our national coping mechanism, we’ve developed a thick skin to these catastrophic events, but I believe we have paid a steep price for this: we’ve also desensitized ourselves along the way.
This has snowballed into a nationwide empathy deficit and we see it everywhere: in our politics, in victim-blaming, in finger-pointing about the pandemic.
The empathy deficit is also taking its toll in the workplace and threatens to impact growth and thus the bottom line. According to a Businessolver longitudinal empathy study, only a quarter of employees believe that their companies exhibit sufficient empathy. That same study revealed that many CEOs are actually self-aware in their struggle with empathy; seven in ten leaders stated how hard it is for them to demonstrate empathy in the workplace. Twenty-two percent of leaders also mentioned they aren’t even sure how to improve their empathy.
Empathy, as defined by Catalyst, is one’s ability to connect with others and discern how they’re feeling, but also understand their perspectives. Most importantly, it’s approaching individuals from a true place of care and concern.
In today’s workplace environment, with over 65% of employees expressing significant increases in stress, and 55% of employees strongly considering resigning and changing jobs, a deficit of empathy is both a significant liability and an accelerator of these downward trends. That’s because stress reduces our ability to empathize as it focuses people on fight or flight. The more we chronically experience stress, the less likely we are to be empathetic to others. On the other hand, empathy can be a powerful factor in managing stress, helping leaders lead and teams perform.
It is a critical priority to address the empathy deficit within our organizations. We need to place employee agency and wellbeing above all else and commit to ensuring our employees have the resources and support needed to take care of themselves so they can do their best work and live their best lives. Leaders who make this a long-term commitment, rather than summon it opportunistically, have better results. Here are some things you can start doing today:
- Embrace a new perspective on empathy. While many people wouldn’t intuitively rate empathy as one of the most important markers of a successful culture, it’s clear we need it as we continue to future-proof our companies against change and crises. As leaders and colleagues, empathy is a critical component of being able to relate to others and build trust, which are necessary for collective performance.
- Pay attention to how your team defines empathy. Some people believe it’s a moral stance to want to help people. Some believe it’s the ability to read another person’s nonverbal cues. Others think it’s how we connect and relate to someone. Empathy is all of these things and is predicated on one’s ability to relate to others, their point of view, their situation, their reactions, etc. How we use empathy to benefit our teams is what really matters. Can we imagine their situation, their feelings? Allow them to rely on us for support? Will access to mental health resources help your team feel heard and understood? Or more flexible work hours? Nurture your employees’ resiliency skills to help them cope with change. If the pandemic and recent global events have shown us anything, it’s that the rate of change isn’t going to slow down.
- Make empathy a company-wide value. People understand that stress management, positivity, and problem-solving skills are all part of resilience, but so is empathy. Yet, empathy still ranked low on the list by both leaders and employees.
There’s no going back to the days when mental health wasn’t our top priority as leaders. We must rediscover our empathy so that we can build it into our organizations. It’s how we can support our teams and our organizations even during the most volatile times.