Growing up in a working-class neighborhood in pre-hipster and gentrified Brooklyn, there wasn’t any talk about mental health. No one asked or cared about your well-being—beyond a “howya doin?”
As a Gen-Xer in the workplace, the feeling was similar. Bosses couldn’t care less about your emotional health and wanted everyone to commute long hours into the office, stay late into the eventing and put in time over the weekend.
It’s remarkable that it took a global pandemic to make the business community wake up and recognize that they must treat their employees with empathy, dignity and respect. The New York City cynic in me feels that some of the Baby Boomer CEOs still don’t get it, but they clearly know that there is an aggressive war for talent being fought to find top talent in a highly competitive job market.
Leadership also needs to contend with the ramifications of the Great Resignation. Millions of Americans quit their jobs. These folks say that they are sick and tired of low pay, long hours, a lack of growth potential and bosses who relentlessly bully and demean them. Job hopping used to be a deal killer if you wanted to get hired. Now, it’s becoming acceptable.
Enlightened, forward-thinking, progressive companies intuitively understand that the dynamics of the future of the workplace have quickly changed. Leaders recognize that to remain competitive and excel, they need to attract, recruit and retain the best talent. To do this, they have to stand out among their rivals. This could be accomplished in a simple way. Ernst & Young (EY), the Big Four global accounting, audit, tax and management consulting firm, is a prime example of having its fingers on the pulse of this new paradigm—and is taking action.
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In an interview with Ginnie Carlier, EY Americas vice chair of talent, we discussed the movement that she is spearheading. Oftentimes, when you speak with top executives they use meaningless jargon, espouse platitudes and nothing gets accomplished. Carlier is direct and a woman of action. She is on a mission to make EY an empathetic workplace. By doing so, it will improve the mental health and well-being of her employees. Happier workers, who feel empowered, respected and trusted by managers, will outperform, as they greatly appreciate the confidence and autonomy. This should result in satisfied clients, as appreciative professionals work harder and smarter. Revenue and profit growth then follow suit.
Carlier discussed that EY will have a “flexible” work style. This means that if a person wants to work remotely, that’s fine. Should they want to come into the office a couple of days a week, the office is open. The employees are treated like adults who can make their own informed decisions on what type of schedules work best for them. Of course, there will be times when meetings, a client’s desire for an in-person conversation or a team leader needing a person to be in the office will be honored and the relevant professionals would be asked to be available.
The secret sauce, according to Carlier, is to be empathetic. Managers need to actively listen to their employees and hear what they are saying. Based on the feedback, the leaders should then take appropriate actions. The company offers mental health counseling for both employees and their family members. Carlier points out that it’s not just the worker who suffers. The person brings back the baggage to their homes, which in turn, could lead to problems with their spouses, partners and children.
We’ve all been there. A bad day, week or month at work makes us irritable and angry. Sadly, it’s the family and friends who also suffer. This is one of the many reasons Carlier calls for a holistic set of policies, benefits and actions to ensure that her workers are taken care of mentally and emotionally.
The firm released the “2021 EY Empathy in Business Survey.” The study was commissioned to reveal how empathy affects leaders, employees and innovation in the workplace.
Here are some of the highlights:
- The survey of over 1,000 Americans who are employed reveals that many have left a previous job because their boss wasn’t empathetic to their struggles at work (54%) or in their personal lives (49%).
- New EY Consulting survey confirms 90% of U.S. workers believe empathetic leadership leads to higher job satisfaction and 79% agree it decreases employee turnover.
- The majority (88%) of respondents feel that empathetic leadership creates loyalty among employees toward their leaders—revealing that empathy could be the secret sauce to retaining and finding employees in the face of the Great Resignation.
- Employees feel that the companies they work for are talking the talk, but not necessarily walking the walk, when it comes to empathy and support in the workplace. In fact, almost half (46%) of employees feel that their company’s efforts to be empathetic toward employees are dishonest. Similarly, two in five (42%) employees say that their company doesn’t follow through when it makes promises.
- Employees describe an empathetic leader as someone who is transparent and fair, and follows through on actions. The top-five qualities employees look for in an empathetic senior leader are: Open and transparent (41%), Fair (37%), Follows through on action (37%), Encourages others to share their opinions (36%), Trusted to handle difficult conversations (34%)
- A lack of empathy in the workplace has caused many employees to leave their jobs, which is a possible contributor to this year’s so-called Great Resignation. Over half (58%) of employees have previously left a job because they didn’t feel valued by their boss, and nearly half (48%) have left a job because they didn’t feel like they belonged. The difficulty of connecting with colleagues has resulted in more than a third (37%) of employees leaving their organization.
- A staggering 89% of employees agree that empathy leads to better leadership. In fact, 88% feel that empathetic leadership inspires positive change within the workplace, and 87% say that it enables trust among employees and leaders. Additionally, 85% report that empathetic leadership in the workplace increases productivity among employees.
- Beyond improving employee satisfaction and decreasing turnover rates, there are tangible business benefits to prioritizing empathy in the workplace. According to the survey, benefits are plenty, since employees agree that mutual empathy between leaders and employees increases: Efficiency (87%), Creativity (87%), Innovation (86%), Company revenue (81%)
- Unquestionably, the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in myriad personal and professional challenges, and the ability to have honest conversations in the workplace is crucial. More than eight in 10 (85%) employees say that it’s important for organizations to cultivate a climate in which diverse perspectives are valued. However, about a third (30%) of employees are not comfortable advocating for cultural changes within their organization and one-in-four (26%) do not feel comfortable raising ethical concerns.
- Top initiatives that would help employees feel more comfortable having open discussions with a boss include: Having regularly scheduled one-on-ones (45%), Providing opportunities to give anonymous feedback (42%), Participating in team-building exercises (37%), Receiving frequent reminders that they’re in a safe space to have open discussions (36%), Participating in training or communication workshops about having open discussions (36%)
Steve Payne, EY Americas Consulting vice chair, said about the respondents’ answers, “As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, leaders are working to establish business transformation models to adapt in the new normal.” Payne added, “Our research finds that empathy is not only a nice-to-have, but the glue and accelerant for business transformation in the next era of business. Empathy’s ability to create a culture of trust and innovation is unmatched, and this previously overlooked trait must be at the forefront of businesses across all industries.”
According to Payne, “The ability to connect with employees and provide a supportive work environment is more important than ever. Organizations and leaders must prioritize empathy to foster innovation, inspire growth and successfully lead business transformation efforts.”
Unfortunately, accountants, auditors, tax advisors, attorneys and management consultants are not always perceived as possessing a high emotional IQ. Carlier is changing this mindset by championing her empathetic movement to improve the quality of the lives of her people.
In a LinkedIn post, written during World Mental Health Day, Carlier offered her vision of the future of work, stating, “Our people are under increased pressure at home and at work as a result of the ongoing crisis—health, economic, social, racial and mental. Consequently, our role as employers has changed. Managing the physical and emotional health and well-being of our employees must be at the top of every leadership team’s priority list every day, not just World Mental Health Day. Companies can, and must, do more to support the mental health and well-being of not only their employees but their employees’ families as well.”