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Work life 29 Oct 2021

Empathy at the top

Empathy is now among the most important traits for a CEO according to global business leaders – and more crucial than ever as we emerge from the pandemic.

Empathy is suddenly a hot topic. While it has long been cited as a useful “soft skill” for leaders, now global leaders say it is the single most important characteristic needed for CEOs. According to Bupa Global’s 2021 Executive Wellbeing Index, nearly half of those surveyed said they valued empathy most in a leader1.

“Empathy in leadership is not just about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, it’s about seeing how they feel in their shoes to really understand what they’re going through,” Grant Conway, People Director at Bupa Global says. “The pandemic has driven empathy among leaders to be higher up on the agenda and it’s more relevant than ever.”

After two years of disrupted business practices that have affected everything from office life to supply chains and market fluctuations, as well as the knock-on effect on employees’ mental health, it is no wonder that empathy at work is so highly prized. Globally, almost a third of business leaders expect CEOs to display greater empathy, rising to even higher levels in the Asia Pacific regions, according to Bupa Global’s data. Almost half of Singaporean executives, 32% of those from Hong Kong and 31% from China, wanted more empathy from their CEOs.

Good for whole business

It is not just “nice to have”; several studies show it is essential for business. “Empathy builds trust, which then leads to psychological safety which in turn creates the right conditions for more innovation and creativity,” says Michael Jenkins, CEO and Co-Founder of the leadership coaching company, Expert Humans, founded in Singapore.

According to Business Solver’s 2021 State of Workplace Empathy Study, 84% of CEOs believe empathy drives better business outcomes and 72% of employees believe it encourages greater motivation2. “If people feel leaders understand and can empathise with their situation, then it’s likely to make them build trust with their employer and feel safer at work; this in turn helps people perform at their best,” Conway explains.

It also helps with staff retention and attracting new talent; a recent study of CEOs in the United States found that 82% of employees would consider leaving their job for a more ‘empathetic organisation’, while nearly 80% of employees said they would work longer hours for an empathetic employer3. “[Empathy] provides scope for an improvement or enhancement of employer brand in terms of both attracting and retaining the critical talent that we need and through this we can look to enjoy better productivity as well as a more fulfilled, content and happy workforce,” Jenkins says.

Effect on employee wellbeing

It also has huge impact on employee wellbeing – something that is desperately needed as we exit the pandemic. “If you have an empathetic and supportive employer, it’s less likely that the stress will get to such a degree that you will become mentally unwell,” Dr Pablo Vandenabeele, Clinical Director for Mental Health at Bupa says. “It’s a win-win, as the environment is more nurturing, and employees will be able to come forward and address it at an earlier stage.”

It is something Kit (not his real name), a distribution manager at a global oil company based in Asia, has come to greatly appreciate. He describes struggling with mental health quietly for years, until suffering a major breakdown in 2018. After nine months off work, he re-joined his team in a staged return. “It was obviously hard to go back and face everyone, but now that my line manager knows about my difficulties, he has been so conscientious about checking in to see if my workload is manageable, and if I am coping.”

“The level of empathy he displayed in helping me through from a work perspective was so important to me; he offered me time off or to continue doing less work while I took time to look after my mental health. I chose to stay on, but do less, so that I had a structure to my day and felt connected to my team. It was a godsend.”

Steps to take

Despite the gains that many believe an empathetic leadership brings to an organisation, there is still what some term an “empathy gap”. Only a quarter of employees in the 2021 State of Workplace Empathy Study believe that the empathy in their organisation is sufficient.

There are a couple of ways to be more empathetic, according to Jenkins. “To develop an empathetic leadership style, we deepen our listening skills, our ability to be non-judgmental and our ability to take compassionate action to alleviate the stress, anxiety or pain felt by our colleagues,” he says.

Active listening takes practice. “Empathy from leaders isn’t about going into solution mode immediately and is instead about considering what it is the person is looking for,” Conway says. “It can be in the form of genuinely listening and hearing – taking the time to be silent and listen to what someone else is saying. They may not be looking for help or an answer but are actually seeking understanding from their employer.”

Diversify the team

Along with a personal approach, businesses need to look at their “existing systems, processes and internal governance to check whether there is a more empathetic approach that we could take to enable our workplaces to be more human,” Jenkins adds.

Part of that involves looking at the make-up of a company. A diverse workplace is key to empathy because it enables differing points of view, according to 90% of HR professionals and CEOs2.

A more diverse leadership is something 28% of the global leaders say they want to improve, rising to 68% of those based in the United Arab Emirates, according to Bupa Global’s Executive Wellbeing Index. The figures show that 83% of international organisations plan to recruit more women, with 80% intending to increase ethnic diversity and 78% wanting more people with disabilities in the boardroom.

Exit from pandemic

Empathetic business leadership is needed now more than ever before. Many employees – executives included – are recovering from the stress caused by the pandemic. Meanwhile our working practices are changing, with hybrid models being favoured by many around the world.

“One thing I’ve realised is that everyone’s experience of the pandemic has been and continues to be different,” Jenkins says. “Things that affect some people are less likely to affect others, or they affect people in a variety of often unpredictable ways – so using empathy to try to “feel” and appreciate someone else’s experience and perspective – is something I’ve found myself coming back to again and again.”


Sources

1 Bupa Global Wellbeing Index 2021 (opens in new window)

2 Business Solver, last accessed in October 2021 (opens in new window)

3 Business Solver: State of Workplace Empathy 2019 Executive Summary (opens in new window)