In recent years, empathy in the workplace has become a main focus on the business agenda. Research shows that high empathy workplaces not only maintain happier and more motivated workforces, but also generate superior business outcomes than their lower-empathy counterparts. In the era of Covid-19 and remote working, it has never more important to understand empathy, both its expressions and its value in a business context.  

To investigate this topic further, Beverley Nicholas, Regional Talent Director Learning & Development at PageGroup, recently hosted a webinar with Belinda Parmar OBE, CEO of The Empathy Business. During the webinar, Belinda covered the three all-important questions that leaders should be asking themselves about workplace empathy: Why, what, and how?

Why should a business prioritise empathy?

With so much evidence demonstrating the benefits of workplace empathy, a more appropriate question might be, ‘why not?’ A 2016 study of 170 companies conducted by Harvard Business School showed that empathy correlates directly with growth, earnings and productivity, suggesting that workplace empathy is not a nice-to-have, but a lynchpin for commercial success. Moreover, the strategic importance of empathy has only grown following the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent shift to remote working. Belinda points to a recent study, which indicated that less than 20% of workers wish to return to the ways of working which predominated prior to the pandemic. With flexible and hybrid working here to stay, it has become a priority for businesses to reconsider many elements of their cultures and management styles as we move toward a new normal. 

With that said, it is clear that empathy should be front of mind for business leaders, especially considering the difficulty of showing empathy to colleagues in separate physical spaces from yourself. So, as a real and growing business priority, how can companies ensure that it becomes and remains a part of company culture?

How can a business encourage and instil empathy?

Empathy is a skill like any other; as such, it can and should be taught. In this context, it is essential to remember that failure or success often hinges upon the use of language in a workplace by staff, and especially by leadership. Belinda discusses ‘corporate bingo’, the jargon with which we are all so familiar, but which often includes terms which may dehumanise or devalue the people whose performance the company relies upon. Given this, leaders must be prepared to interrogate their own word-choices, considering the impact of their language upon others. 

Other success factors for creating workplace empathy are more conceptual, such as having an accurate understanding of what truly constitutes empathetic behaviour. Belinda provides an important clarification around this: empathy is not synonymous with sympathy. It is instead rooted in an acknowledgement that you do not know how other people feel. 

This is particularly true in a post-pandemic world, where everyone has been impacted differently, and many people’s feelings toward changes like the move to remote working diverge sharply. As such, active listening has become more important than ever as a means to reassure staff that their concerns are heard, and to create a sense of belonging among employees.

What changes can companies make to normalise empathy?

While individuals should consider the impact of their actions and words, leadership can also implement higher level changes to company processes to truly make empathy the bedrock of company culture. These changes are often small in their scope, but collectively have a huge impact. To take a particularly current example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the phrase ‘key workers’ came to denote workers whose roles were essential to everyday life. The category included many workers who would be termed ‘low-skilled’, but the term ‘key worker’ was understood to be a far more empathic, and the more appropriate descriptor.  

The same principle applies to numerous scenarios within a company. Whether rewarding hard-working employees for a job well done, or chasing late payment from a customer or client, the empathy with which an organisation chooses to communicate will make all the difference. 

When it comes to creating a motivated and productive workforce the stakes have never been higher for the business community. Empathy, in words, actions and processes, is proving to be a key enabler. 

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