Unless leaders commit to the implementation of solution-focused employee benefits, workplace empathy is meaningless. The current pandemic provides employers with an outstanding opportunity to implement solution-focused employee benefits, particularly those which impact women and their professional advancement.
There are five areas of action in which leaders can make empathy meaningful:
- Invest in communication best practices;
- Prioritize and implement disability risk mitigation measures;
- Critically examine current benefits and the corporate culture;
- Empower women to manage their careers & continue to support their professional advancement; and
- Leadership must commit to make empathy a core corporate value.
Empathy is a core competency of leadership
Unless leaders commit to the implementation of solution-focused employee benefits, workplace empathy is meaningless.
Described by Annie McKee in Harvard Business Journal, empathy is the ability to read and understand other’s emotions, needs, and thoughts—is one of the core competencies of emotional intelligence and a critical leadership skill. It is what allows us to influence, inspire, and help people achieve their dreams and goals. Empathy enables us to connect with others in a real and meaningful way, which in turn makes us happier—and more effective—at work.
Leaders are challenged to balance empathy with the ability to make decisions that benefit the company’s human and financial capital.
Over the years, business leaders have sought to better understand the difficulties working women face. Many businesses now provide more generous employee benefits plans, flexible hours, and work from home policies, which are considered as evidence of an empathetic workplace culture.
The Covid-19 pandemic has intensified and highlighted the challenges faced by working women.
- According to the RBC Economic Report, 1.5 million women lost their jobs within the first two months of the pandemic. Despite absorbing 51% of job losses in March and April, women accounted for just 45% of job gains in May and June as economic activity restarted.
There are indications that advances made by women, particularly in the areas of professional development, health, and economics, are in jeopardy.
The RBC Report indicated that nearly half of newly unemployed women who lost their jobs between February and May (and one third who lost jobs between February and June) were terminated and did not seek work– putting them at higher risk of long-term job-separation and future wage penalties. The report cites the reasons for this as the responsibilities of motherhood and the high representation of women in retail, accommodation, and food services sectors, hardest hit by the pandemic.
There are also indicators that employers are aware of the adverse effects of the pandemic on their employees’ health and wellbeing, and the challenges faced by working mothers.
- A recent survey by consulting firm Mercer found that 63% of employers said they’re investing or plan to invest in ensuring the well-being of their workforce in both the short and long term.
When asked about prioritizing new employee benefits programs, employers’ top choices were flexible work (37 per cent) and mental health and wellness programs (30 per cent), followed by digital wellness offerings such as telemedicine (28 per cent), a wellness or health-care spending account (20 per cent) and financial wellness programs (14 per cent).
How effective are current and proposed employee benefits programs in helping women to stay in the workforce and advance in their career?
- Although employers intend to invest in benefit plans, 51 per cent of employers surveyed by Mercer said that they are reviewing their strategies to further manage benefits costs.
The extent to which these benefits will truly help employees, particularly women, is left to be seen, considering that the economic hardship caused by the pandemic has led employers to lay off employees, implement hiring freezes, reduced hours, and rotational work schedules.
- In an insightful article, Jessica Weisz gives a clear perspective on why flexible hours haven’t helped women advance in their careers. She points out that flexible hours allow women to care for their families but stay stuck in junior roles, while outsourcing childcare and housework to nannies lets women who can afford it, ascend the corporate ladder.
Work from home policies, while strongly appealing to working mothers, can prove to be a dangerous roadblock to their career progression.
- A recent survey commissioned by the Montréal Centre-Ville and the Urban Development Institute found that 51% of downtown Montréal office workers found professional relationships harder to maintain when working from home.
Being physically absent from decision-making meetings, and opportunities for informal networking, make employees less visible and more likely to miss out on opportunities to demonstrate their capacity to take on more responsibility and be promoted.
Faced with competing priorities, many women who cannot afford to stop working will opt for precarious employment—work that is temporary, part-time, freelance, contract-based and without benefits. Temporary, contractual work as a cost reduction business strategy and as a stop-gap for workers, will continue to adversely affect women, particularly younger women who should expect to have a longer career trajectory.
Hiring on-site contractors and temporary workers is a trend that will likely emerge in the post-pandemic period, particularly in the accommodation, food services, health care and social assistance sectors. This is a disturbing finding, published in a McKinsey Global Survey of 800 business executives. These are sectors where women workers predominate.
The economy needs women in the workplace, particularly in the board rooms and in positions of leadership and influence.
Sustainable solutions must be found to ensure that the economy, businesses, and communities benefit from the full potential of women.
- The Canadian economy would be a quarter trillion dollars smaller without women – Bank of Montreal Study 2018
- Companies with the highest representation of women on their top management teams experienced better financial performance than companies with the lowest women’s representation – Catalyst Study 2004
- Women are more educated and acquiring more education to benefit businesses and the economy. A 2016 Statistics Canada report indicated that since the early 1990’s, the majority (56%) of students enrolled in Canada’s public colleges and universities in 2013-14 were women and accounted for 58% of the total number of graduates in 2013.
- In the period between 1991 and 2013, the number of new apprenticeship registrations increased threefold, while the growth in female apprenticeship was larger, increasing by 6.7 times to about 14,000 in 2013.
Empathy is meaningful when employees are listened to, when they feel that they are heard and when leadership commits to implementing solutions that enable them to thrive, prosper and successfully manage personal and professional responsibilities.
The current pandemic provides employers with an outstanding opportunity to implement solution-focused employee benefits, particularly those which impact women and their professional advancement.
Five areas of action in which leaders can make empathy meaningful:
1. Invest in communication best practices
Keep regularly scheduled bi-directional communication channels open to allow for formal and informal communication between leaders and their direct reports and among peers to learn and share challenges and successes in adapting to work in the new normal.
While it is impressive that 63% of employers intend to invest in programs to improve the well-being of their employees, it is essential that the availability and accessibility of these programs are communicated regularly to employees.
- An Ipsos Survey found that about two-thirds of Canadians say isolation has been the primary reason for their decline in mental wellness, and 60% say they are not receiving any support to work through their challenges. When asked about which barriers are preventing them from receiving support, 22% said they could not afford treatment, 17% said they do not know where to go or who to ask for help, and 12% said they are too embarrassed to ask for help.
Beyond promoting benefits programs, supervisory and management staff should be trained to identify the early warning signs of mental health challenges. The training should also include best practices in empathetic communication so that leaders may effectively reach out to affected employees on their teams, and guide them to the right resources.
2. Prioritize and implement disability risk mitigation measures
Prior to the pandemic, musculoskeletal concerns such as sprains and strains were among the the top drivers of disability claims. With employees working from home for a prolonged period, it is likely that there will be an upsurge in injuries due to poor ergonomics in makeshift workspaces and the overall general decline in physical activity.
- A recent Statistics Canada Survey found that once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, close to one-quarter (22.5%) of businesses expect that 10% or more of their workforce will continue to telework or work remotely. For businesses that indicate teleworking as potentially applicable to their workforce, just over one-quarter (25.2%) reported being likely or very likely to offer more employees the possibility of teleworking or working remotely once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, while 14.3% were likely or very likely to require it.
Employers who will adopt teleworking as a mandatory business practice, will need to see beyond the cost savings generated, and invest in mitigation measures to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injuries. Establishing ergonomic standards and providing appropriate equipment for home offices will be an important way in which business leaders demonstrate their commitment to the well-being of their employees.
3. Critically examine current benefits and the corporate culture
This is a good time to review workplace policies to determine if they truly support the workplace culture and vice versa. For example, are there ways in which flexible hours and work from home policies could work better for the advancement of women and the culture of the organization?
Jessica Weisz asserts that although corporate leaders rally around flexibility as a solution to the workplace gender gap, they still perpetuate the enduring doctrine that long hours are needed to succeed. This duplicity of corporate policies – whether intentional or not – completely counteracts career progression for women. More flexibility for some is not the answer. She recommends that changing the workday for all is the answer.
4. Empower women to manage their careers & continue to support their professional advancement
- In a survey conducted by Deloitte, of the 80% of women who reported career disruption from Covid-19, nearly 70% are concerned about their ability to progress in their career, with 60% questioning whether they want to progress when considering what they perceive is currently required to move up in their organization.
To ensure that the gains in gender parity are not lost, and that the economy benefits from the skills and expertise of women, businesses must ensure that mentorship and other professional development programs continue both online and in-person, fitting with the schedules and needs of women during the pandemic and beyond.
Employers also should seek ways to involve women employees in projects that will advance their careers. For example, as businesses find new and better ways of serving clients in the new normal, women employees could be involved in focus groups and in leading the development and design of new client service models, particularly for clients whose profiles are similar to those of the employees.
5. Leadership must commit to making empathy a core corporate value
Throughout the pandemic and in the foreseeable future, we can expect the world to be in a constant state of change. The one thing that must remain constant is sound leadership based on values that earn businesses much more than profits.
To be successful, businesses must find ways to keep their employees engaged and earn the loyalty of their clients and the communities in which they live and work. Empathy is an important value that will do this. When embraced by the organization’s leaders, empathy flows through to the corporate culture and the public’s perception of the brand. Citi CMO Carla Hassan knows this very well.
When discussing what’s had the greatest impact on her perspective as a marketer, Hassan shares the story of her daughter being diagnosed with Wilms’ Tumor at age four. It was a moment that changed her life both personally and professionally, she says, when she saw how empathetic her boss, Brad Jakeman, and former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi were. The empathy that they demonstrated has stayed with her.
In her words, “… (Their empathy) has really colored so much about not just the leader I am, but the marketer I am. This notion that you must put yourself in other people’s shoes because you never know what someone is going through. It makes you curious, it makes you understand human connection more. That is the most critical element not just for effective leadership, but quite frankly, for powerful marketing — to rely on human connection, empathy, authenticity and vulnerability. That moment taught me that and has led me to a perspective that is very different: Setting a vision and strategy is critical, but how do you extract the most value from your team to really accomplish all of your objectives? That’s driven by humanity. That’s driven by empathy.”
See the BIG picture. Focus on what’s important.
Camille N. Isaacs Morell is an experienced business leader who spent over 15 years in the financial services sector, where she played an important role in the development and marketing of employee benefit plans. She passionately believes that an engaged and empowered workforce thrives in an environment where empathy goes beyond listening.