Employers need to establish empathetic and compassionate environments. Here’s why

Empathy and compassion are not typically associated with traditional business priorities.  But the value of a positive environment that promotes inclusivity and compassion should not be underestimated. 

Two people looking at others point of view

Past research from the Association of Accounting Technicians suggests that employees value companionship and recognition in the workplace over big salaries. 

Boosting business
Empathy also has been linked to increased employee productivity, loyalty and retention.  

According to a Businessolver report, 77 per cent of employees said they’d work longer hours for an empathetic employer, with 60 per cent stating they would take a salary cut to work for an employer of similar ilk.  

Empathy is particularly critical to millennials, with nearly 80 per cent claiming they would change jobs if their current employer became less empathetic, compared to 66 per cent of baby boomers.

These results make a compelling case for why companies should strive to create an empathetic environment and cultivate a compassionate culture.  

But the issue lies in how?  
Empathy is about connecting with colleagues on a personal level and being able to understand and share the feelings of others – which is no simple task.    

Establishing an empathetic workforce requires company-wide buy-in, and continued co-operation, and it exposes workers and leaders to a level of vulnerability they are not used to or particularly comfortable with.   

One way to overcome this challenge is to incorporate empathy and compassion into the company’s wellbeing strategy, identifying them as key factors in the improvement of employee emotional health.  

This will help give some structure to the drive to improve empathy, with initiatives built around education and awareness, providing a supportive environment in which a more understanding and accepting workforce can be forged.  

Leading by example
Managers play a key role in establishing and sustaining empathetic environments, as they set the example for the rest of the workforce.  

If managers are seen to be committed to their own wellbeing, from taking regular breaks to abiding by out of hours email policies, they are making it acceptable for others to behave in a similar way and are setting a benchmark for self-care amongst the workforce.     

Similarly, managers who make clear that they are invested in the health and wellbeing of their workers, and that any issues or problems shared will be listened to and dealt with in a sensitive manner, encourage a similar ‘copy-cat’ approach amongst colleagues.  

But managers must ensure that they are not just paying ‘lip-service’ to health and wellbeing.    

Workers will be looking to managers to set the tone of how issues are treated and problems perceived in the work environment. 

Those who champion wellbeing whilst putting unrealistic demands and pressures on the workforce will send a message to workers that the concern they express is not authentic – setting a precedent for how colleagues should treat each other’s struggles. 

Companies can help managers by putting people at the heart of training, offering advice on how to build meaningful and valuable relationships with workers and outlining clearly defined and timely actions for them to take once issues have been raised. 

Challenging attitudes
One of the big hurdles to empathy and understanding is stigma.  

If an environment is perceived as judgemental and critical, workers will be closed off and will fail to connect with one another.  

Warranted or not, the fear of judgement affects workers in a number of areas, holding them back from making decisions that would have a positive impact on their wellbeing and breeding a culture of isolation and disengagement.  

For example, in Willis Towers Watson’s recent Health and Benefits Barometer research, 41 per cent of workers said there is a resentment towards people who work flexibly due to family commitments.  This, despite 42 per cent of respondents saying that flexible working would have a positive impact on their health and wellbeing.  

Similarly, more than half (53 per cent) of workers said there was a sense of resentment towards colleagues who took breaks to smoke or vape.  Two thirds (64 per cent) of non-smokers and non-vapers don’t take regular breaks, with fear of being judged by colleagues and managers among the reasons why.  

However, 52 per cent of workers believe that taking regular breaks would improve their wellbeing and 55 per cent said it would improve productivity.  

There is recognition that flexible working and regular breaks would improve wellbeing but the perceived resentment towards those who partake in such activities causes people to shy away from them. 

Companies should look to foster understanding amongst the workforce.  Communications could outline that flexible working options are not confined to those with family commitments, and invite anyone who is struggling with working hours to speak to managers about workload.  

In the case of breaks, companies could create dedicated areas for breaks and issue regular communications about the importance of breaks for mental endurance and emotional resilience.  

Bringing such issues in the open and providing compassionate solutions will underline the company’s commitment to worker wellbeing, which will filter down through the ranks and challenge feelings of resentment.    

Normalising mental health 
Although there is clear evidence that mental health has a profound impact on workers, and despite efforts to change attitudes within organisations, scepticism persists.  

According to previous Barometer research, one fifth (20 per cent) of employees harbour scepticism towards people who take time off due to mental health issues and a similar proportion (19 per cent) do not believe stress is a genuine mental health condition.   

If employees feel they cannot be open about their state of mind with colleagues, they will hide the issue, become alienated, and opportunities for early intervention will be missed.   

In order to tackle this stigma, and create a more understanding workforce, organisations must educate all employees and provide them with easy access to mental health information. 

Creating a peer-orientated support network, such as trained mental health champions, can help, as it brings mental health into day-to-day discussions, and is without the direct involvement of a line manager. 

As well as acting as a confidante and directing employees to sources of support, mental health champions can seek feedback from staff on how to improve mental health at work, advise organisations on specific areas of need or concern, and carry out activities and workshops that encourage healthy behaviours. 

This all ultimately contributes to normalising the issue of mental health amongst the wider workforce, and sets companies on a path to creating a more resilient, compassionate and empathetic working environment.  

The author is Mike Blake, wellbeing lead at Willis Towers Watson.

This article is provided by Willis Towers Watson. 

If you'd like to hear a lot more on the topic of employee wellbeing, and also specifically from Willis Towers Watson, then sign up for Employee Wellbeing Congress on 20 June in London, where they'll be exhibiting.

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