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Is empathy the great resignation’s secret solution?

There’s a lot being said right now about the “great resignation.” And rightly so. According to Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index, two in five workers (41%) worldwide are likely to consider leaving their current employer within the next year. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Labor has spent several months reporting record-breaking numbers of US workers voluntarily quitting their jobs.

Yet if the magnitude of the issue is clear, the causes are less so. In some cases, the forced reset of COVID-19 has led people to re-evaluate their views on life, work and how to balance them. For some, it prompted them to pivot their career to make remote working a bigger part of their job in the future. Others, fresh from spending more time at home during lockdown, may have decided now is the moment to bring forward retirement plans or shift their focus to family life. 

Remote impossibilities

Whatever the reasons behind their workers’ itchy feet, the retention of talent is perhaps the greatest crisis organizations currently face. And for the leaders tasked with navigating this state of flux, the challenges are considerable. 

Chief among them is finding effective ways to protect employees’ well-being and productivity from the other end of a laptop. Fostering a cohesive culture that people can shape and buy into is also far more taxing when they are rarely in the same workplace together, while a higher number of job vacancies means an increased workload and heightened risk of burnout for those who do choose to stay. 

Likewise, more worker movement means more new starters, each of whom has to be embedded in the organization’s systems, processes and culture. Again, this onboarding process must increasingly happen remotely over Wi-Fi rather than in person over coffee, which at best takes longer and at worst can become impossible. 

Silver linings

Yet within this seemingly dark cloud is also a silver lining — because a solution may be waiting in the wings. A recent EY study revealed that 9 out of 10 (90%) US workers believe empathetic leadership leads to higher job satisfaction, 88% feel it generates loyalty among staff toward their bosses, and 85% think it boosts worker productivity. Crucially, more than three-quarters (79%) agree it decreases employee turnover. In other words, the study found a direct correlation between the vital issue of retention and the perceived level of empathy in the workplace. 

But what does empathy actually mean? For workers, it ultimately comes down to whether or not they feel their needs — both personal and professional — are being listened to, understood and accommodated by their organization’s leadership. In many ways, this is nothing new; employees have long wanted to have their voices heard and desires met. But the pandemic has supercharged those expectations, especially around issues such as mental well-being, flexible hours and hybrid working. 

Tellingly, it’s also made them more willing to abandon employers that fail to deliver: to the point that over half (54%) of US workers say they have left a previous job because their boss wasn’t empathetic to their struggles at work. A similar number (49%) quit due to a lack of appreciation of pressures in their home life.

This time it’s personal

Building an empathetic culture should therefore be a key and immediate priority for any organization looking to recruit and retain top talent. Yet the beautiful thing is that the impact reaches beyond that; there are also tangible business benefits for organizations that do so. According to the survey, nearly 9 out of 10 (87%) workers feel that mutual empathy between them and their leaders increases their efficiency. The same number (87%) report it boosts creativity, 86% believe it enhances innovation, and 81% think it increases company revenue. 

However, to reap these rewards, leaders must walk the walk not just talk the talk. Nearly half (46%) of the employees surveyed feel their company’s efforts to be empathetic toward them are dishonest, while two in five (42%) claim their organization doesn’t follow through on its promises. Marrying authenticity with action is therefore paramount, especially with the coming generation of Gen Z workers who are even more laser-focused on finding employers that share their values and allow them to be true to themselves at work. 

It’s also important that organizations balance programmatic ways of driving empathy with more individual ones. Indeed, the very essence of empathy is that it looks and feels different to everyone depending on their unique circumstances in the workplace and at home. Leaders should thus concentrate on building strong one-on-one relationships with their teams to boost connectivity, drive trust and allow them to take genuine, personalized steps to improve each individual’s well-being, productivity and job satisfaction. 

Quality control

There are also some distinct qualities that US workers associate with empathetic leaders. Foremost among them is transparency in their decision-making, closely followed by fairness and a willingness to back up their promises and commitments with actions. Encouraging others to share their opinions and being trusted to handle difficult conversations make up the top five. 

This is good news. First, because it provides a clear road map for senior executives looking to build empathy into the way they lead and oversee their organization. And second, because all are characteristics that anyone can develop, implement and control on a daily basis. 

Right now, many of us will be looking forward to the holiday season, especially after the disruption and enforced separation of the previous 18 months. Yet this is also a period when the challenges of work and family life can overlap more closely and when time and financial pressures may lead to increased stress and anxiety. It’s therefore the perfect moment for leaders to take stock and consider how they can display more empathy in their role. 

That’s of course not to say empathetic leadership is merely a seasonal requirement — far from it. But the holidays can and should remind all of us to put ourselves in our people’s shoes, listen to their points of view and take steps at both a programmatic and individual level to truly address their personal and professional needs.

Leaders who do so can begin building a culture in which every employee feels comfortable in bringing their full self to work, is confident in raising concerns and trusts that their voice will be heard: a culture that people want to remain part of and thrive in rather than escape for greener pastures elsewhere. That is empathetic leadership. And it may well be the great resignation’s secret solution. 

Written by Marcelo Bartholo, EY Americas Deputy Vice Chair – Consulting. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Ernst & Young LLP or any other member firm of the global EY organization.

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Marcelo Bartholo
Marcelo Bartholo currently serves as the Americas Deputy Vice Chair (DVC) for Consulting at Ernst & Young. In this role, Marcelo is responsible for all strategic and operational aspects of our Consulting business in the Americas, the largest Area for the firm with more than 23,000 consultants across 10 business units in the US, Canada, Latin America and Israel.

Marcelo Bartholo is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn.