When COVID hit, organizations quickly sprang into action to ensure that employees had the resources and support they needed. From reliable internet and remote technologies to an array of health and lifestyle benefits supporting mental and physical health, organizations reoriented around their employees needs to show they cared.
Putting empathy front and center requires placing ourselves in someone else's shoes to understand how that person is thinking and feeling. While empathy and compassion have always been important aspects of our healthcare industry, we're now seeing how critical it is across all work environments.
Research from Jamil Zaki, professor of psychology at Stanford University, said that empathy leads to increased morale, reduced stress and more effective feedback.
In addition, Yale's School of Management found that in an empathetic culture, employees feel valued, build deeper connections with their co-workers, support others with compassion and are more productive.
However, fostering an empathetic workplace requires making caring a central part of that culture. So how could we develop the skills to improve how we understand our employees' emotions, build trust and calm anxieties in today's environment?
Here are five steps for building empathy in the workplace.
Empathy must start at the top. Before COVID, a lot of business leaders were numbers-oriented to drive bottom-line results. While results still matter, how one achieves those results has dramatically changed. And that change happened at home, and then trickled down into the workforce. As leaders we need to recognize that being human doesn't have to end at home, and it must carry into the work environment and start from the top.
Today, vulnerability isn't seen as a negative. We are interested in hearing about their employees' lives, challenges, growth goals and listening to what employees are saying. Stakeholders are empowering employees to ask more questions and help drive decisions and priorities, realizing that employees' viewpoints are equally important than just ours, because these are the people on the frontlines. And by doing so, employees feel valued and want to deliver for the company.
Empathy Starts with the Right Training
Cultivating empathy helps current leaders, and arms future leaders, with the right emotional skills to amplify compassion across the organization. Today, many organizations train leaders to be more empathetic in support of their team members. They're helping colleagues recognize the role others' thoughts, feelings and beliefs play in building partnerships and strengthening connections. Organizations are taking mentorship one step further by training leaders to identify mental health issues in employees and directing them to the right resources and benefits in a safe, judgment-free environment.
Sometimes being empathetic also requires training employees to be more compassionate toward co-workers. Managers can help share resources and courses with employees that strengthen active listening skills, show employees how to validate others' feelings and ask guiding questions. The results don't just translate into solving problems more effectively but also improve the employee's quality of life.
Building a caring and compassionate workplace leans into a culture that supports diversity, equity and inclusion. Empathy helps leaders understand that what might be 'new' is a way of life for others.
Empathy Boosts Social Connections
With social isolation and anti-social behavior on the rise, HR and leaders need to facilitate strong connections in the workplace.
Social connections contribute to higher levels of self-esteem and improve an employee's physical, mental and emotional well-being. People who feel more connected to others are more collaborative and trusting.
To deliver social connections at scale, try creating rewarding, empowering and genuine experiences that connect employees with shared interests. For example, a virtual cooking class, advanced training seminar on industry trends or book club. Automated messaging can encourage participation from employees who are not as socially connected and monitor their participation. If one virtual program doesn't work, it can recommend others until an employee takes action.
In addition, managers should connect with employees on the platforms they interact with the most, such as text, email, and push notifications. By communicating with employees on the platforms they use, employees are more likely to respond, interact, resolve problems and deliver faster. It also ensures employees have the right communication tools to succeed.
Executing these programs for employees creates a learning culture, increases job confidence and promotes personal and professional development.
Providing More Benefits Support
Employers can better support employees holistically by adding more mental health, well-being and financial benefits. Doing so shows employers listen and hear employees and take the time to understand and respond to their needs.
And these benefits don't have to stem directly from insurance services. Benefits upgrades include child care, therapy, work-life management, support groups, mental health days, etc., further improving empathy and showing leadership is mindful of their employees' challenges. In addition, by expanding benefits programs, employees gain support to address increased anxiety, depression, substance abuse and stress disorders.
As HR departments revamp and add benefits packages to support employees holistically, they're considering how previous benefits were not always acted upon - leaving millions of dollars of investments unutilized.
Employees don't take advantage of their benefits often because they are not easy to understand, and not readily accessible in the moments that they might be relevant.
To increase benefits engagement and utilization, HR professionals need to add a powerful, real-time messaging platform with robust data integration capabilities. By taking data and making it actionable, employers can personalize the health journey to reach employees and covered family members with relevant benefit opportunities. These individualized plans serve up relevant communications that encourage employees to take advantage of their benefits. Haven't seen a doctor in three years, let the platform remind your employee there's no time like the present. Surgery scheduled for back pain? Remind employees some in-network doctors may have better ratings than the one they've already seen.
Make It Easy
And finally, how does one go about serving up empathy training, group programs or driving connections inside or outside the office?
Survey individuals on personalized needs, document that data and serve training content, group information or employee assistance programs using a rapid-response communications platform. But remember, personalizing the information to each employee helps support individual employee journeys.
The same platform can also share learning resources such as Learning Management System (LMS) courses. These courses support employee development, whether it's a specific area of interest or educating employees on exuding empathetic behavior. Meaningful, proactive messaging versus generic HR reminders mean individuals know that communication was geared specifically for them versus the entire organization.
As leaders and HR professionals, we need to create an empathetic culture where employees feel supported, valued and understood. Employees should trust that they have the resources and benefits to manage their health, lifestyle and financial concerns and work for an organization that hears and understands their needs.
If you're doing everything possible to make employees feel valued while supporting their mental, physical and financial health, you're on the right track. Otherwise, integrating empathy into your company culture not only creates a more engaged and productive workforce but helps employees build deeper connections with their colleagues.