Our Workplaces are Not Okay: New State of Workplace Empathy Report
“Alarming” is the word that Jon Shanahan, the CEO of Businessolver, uses to describe in their latest 2023 State of Workplace Empathy Report. This year’s survey served a cross section of 1,000 employees, HR Professionals, and CEOs in six different industries. What’s alarming is the sharp downward trend of empathy in the pandemic in workplaces.
Businessolver has been doing this survey for eight years. In fact, I wrote about an earlier version of this same survey in my book, when empathy was emerging as a focus in workplaces. I got an early version of this report and have thoroughly looked at the report and data, and I’m going to share with you some of the most interesting findings in the report over a series of posts.
Many of these findings are not shocking or surprising, and I’m happy that new data is available for us to make the case for a more empathetic world and workplace.
Finding #1: Overall, we’re emerging from the pandemic in a worse place
This is the first State of Workplace Empathy report as we are emerging from the pandemic and returning to some semblance of life before (the “before times”). The report acknowledges what we’ve all experienced: a “relentless onslaught of change.” On top of navigating a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic, the people within our workplaces are tired and fed up, leading to overwhelm and change fatigue. “All the turmoil and change that has transpired over the last few years,” says the Report, “has come at the expense of empathy.”
The data shows a disconnect between our leader and employee motivation. Nearly 90% of CEOs are more motivated than ever emerging from the pandemic, yet 59% of employees agree. And only 21% of employees say that the RTO has positively impacted their personal mental wellness.
Returning to the office (RTO) is a new data point for this specific report, and could be a big reason for the drop in empathy numbers at work. On the whole, remote leaders are more optimistic and motivated than their non-remote peers. And those who work remotely rated their employers more empathetic compared to those who are returning to the office. When it comes to company culture, 63% of CEOs believe that RTO has had a positive impact, yet 39% of HR Professionals believe the same. So even though the most empathetic decision from any leader is to provide more flexible RTO options and is most desired by employees, CEOs think it’s a positive change, with HR Professionals slightly behind them.
Employees are disengaged and burnt out. Burnout refers to the slow onset of feelings of hopelessness and that one’s work has little positive impact. Burnout results from long term non-supportive work and school environments. This might come in the form of heavy workloads, working long hours, having little control over your work, and difficult work-life integration.
Finding #2: HR Professionals are at a breaking point and are struggling
Most CEOs (92%) perceive that their HR professionals have and should lead empathy-building activities, which is up 27 points from last year’s scores. Yet, 68 percent of HR Professionals see their CEOs as empathetic, which has fallen 16 points in the past year. This discrepancy points to a rising challenge in our companies: that CEOs believe that the physical and emotional labor of building an empathetic workplace lies with HR Professionals.
“I am burning it at both ends of the stick day in and day out since COVID. I’m exhausted. We need to take care of everyone else, but no one is taking care of us.” — XpertHR interview with an HR professional
CEOs and company boards make decisions for the financial viability of their company and they are not always making decisions about whether the decisions are desired by or good for their employees or feasible or desirable to those leading human resources. As a result, HR Professionals have continuously juggled uncertainty and complexity: holding change and executing orders that they may not agree with.
All of this uncertainty and change fatigue is taking its toll on HR Professionals. Nearly 61% have experienced a mental health challenge in the past year. A 2022 study by Work Vivo states that nearly all HR Professionals are currently struggling with burnt out (98%), 71% of them do not feel valued within their organization and 78% are thinking of leaving their jobs. This data is having personal and professional ramifications, and seems to be reaching a breaking point. In fact, this year the Businessolver team was compelled to write a 2023 Mental Health Special Report to talk about HR Professional’s mental health crisis, burnout, and what we may want to do about it.
A Word on Compassion Fatigue vs. Empathetic Stress
The study points to what they mention as “compassion fatigue” among HR Professionals. I think it would be helpful to talk about the difference between compassion fatigue and another term: “empathic distress.” I just completed an eight week coaching circle for nurses to overcome compassion fatigue and will launch a support group later this year to deal with the after effects of empathic distress we’re feeling in the workplace.
HR Professionals are experiencing a phenomenon called “compassion fatigue,” which is very common in helping professions like nursing, first responders, and therapists. It is a combination of burnout and secondary trauma. I covered the topic burnout above, but thought I’d write about trauma here.
“Trauma is an experience, set of experiences and/or impacts from social conditions that break or betray our inherent need for safety, belonging, and dignity,” says Staci Haines in her book: The Politics of Trauma: Somatics, Healing, and Social Justice. Secondary trauma is the emotional stress that results when an individual hears about the first-hand trauma experiences of another. This is why those who are in helping professions (like HR and healthcare) experience compassion fatigue.
On the other hand is empathic distress. Trisha Dowling, a Canadian clinical pharmacologist states that “Empathic distress is the strong aversive and self-oriented response to the suffering of others, accompanied by the desire to withdraw from a situation in order to protect one’s self from excessive negative feelings.” In other words, empathic distress is becoming exhausted from empathic resonance — being in community with other people who are experiencing distress.
In the pandemic our need for safety, belonging, and dignity have been threatened, which has resulted in trauma that we are actively working through. Many of us are finding that we don’t have the emotional, social, or financial resources to support life as it is now, and we may not want to let on just how bad we are for fear of being fired or for a number of reasons.
What happens in this space is that at work, our individual pain starts to get muddy with each other’s pain, and then we become distressed by the end of the day. Over the span of a day we become depleted and exhausted. We might start checking out and disconnecting from what’s happening to others around us.
“The antidote to empathic distress is to go towards self compassion, not self care,” says Esther Boykin, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist and relationship advocate. “It’s recognizing that what’s happening is something that happens among human beings all the time — it’s empathic resonance. I feel you and you feel me. If you’re happy and I’m happy, then that’s amazing. But if I’m depleted and you’re depleted , eventually we’re like ‘I can’t deal with you, I can’t deal with me, I can’t deal with anybody. There’s no amount of naps, and massages, manicures, and flights to wherever that will resource us back to being happy and content. What this boils down to is self kindness, mindful awareness, and common humanity.”
Note: I’ll be going deeper into compassion fatigue soon. Too much to write about in this one article.
Finding #3: CEOs are out of touch with what’s happening on the ground
CEOs are under an immense amount of pressure, which can include slowed growth, scarce and expensive talent, employee burnout, and rising shareholder expectations. Often, in the face of pressure and challenges CEOs miss focusing on employee needs, and instead index on customer or market needs above them. We’re experiencing a 30-year high inflation rate, and CEOs have to make hard decisions, and often lean into austerity for survival. When you’re in survival mode, you lose track of what matters.
The size of the company matters when it comes to showing empathy. Interestingly, only half of CEOs at smaller companies say it’s harder to demonstrate empathy in their day-to-day activities than 70% at larger organizations (more than 1,000 employees). Sixty-seven percent (67%) of CEOs rate themselves as more empathetic than before the pandemic, yet HR professionals and employees rate them as the lowest they’ve ever rated their leaders. Ninety percent (90%) feel more motivated coming out of the pandemic, yet their employees and HR professionals within their companies are at a crossroads.
It seems as though CEOs live in denial that there is a problem to be solved. Our company leaders have essentially put on their blinders, and have tunnel vision and are reacting to what’s directly ahead of us instead of thoughtfully responding to the needs and desires of the people around us. They’re being reactive rather than proactive and live in a state of fear and scarcity — that there are not enough resources to go around. So thus we see our colleagues as people to fear instead of people to love and understand. This is a race to the bottom. Leaders should understand how disengaged their employees are, and receive honest, unfiltered feedback from their employees before it’s too late to do so and they’ve completely checked out.
So how do we get out of this dark place?
The answer is not easy — it’s complicated, because the pathway to our current challenges was complicated as well. It’s no surprise that we’re wading through trauma after the threat to our safety, belonging, and dignity these past few years, and trying to keep carrying on in the midst of a chaotic world. We must and can do better.
With awareness we’re able to help. To help burnt out employees and HR professionals rest and recover, and CEOs to get past their egos and out of denial to understand what’s really happening within their organizations. To start, we can double down on empathy on three levels to create a culture of empathy:
- Individual: Self compassion, mindful awareness and connection to our shared humanity
- Team: How we engage with the people we’re most engaged with on a regular basis, including the shared principles, practices, or processes we do our work.
- System: How our work systems stymie or support empathic action and resonance, more work-life integration and flexibility.
And also, I believe we can follow a six-step process that any organization can transform their workplace:
- Realize the people within your company are unhappy and want to change
- Explore your past and connect it to the present
- Share with others how you’d like to move forward
- Challenge company assumptions and beliefs. Keep the ones that serve us and discard the ones that don’t.
- Learn new skills and unlearn old ones.
- Live with continuous improvement in mind.
Reach out to me if you’d like to discuss any of the thoughts above further — I love to hear from people with whom this message resonates.
Next time, I’ll dive deeper into the Report to talk about the findings around the most empathetic benefits, and how these trends affect the movement towards Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB).