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The Great Resignation: Could this one trait help leaders prevent an exodus of workers jumping ship?

The Microsoft Work Trend Index showed 41 per cent of the global workforce are considering resigning this year.
The Microsoft Work Trend Index showed 41 per cent of the global workforce are considering resigning this year.   -   Copyright  Getty via Canva
By Pascale Davies

Millions around the world quit their jobs over spring and summer this year in a phenomenon now dubbed “The Great Resignation”. But could a certain trait be the key for bosses to prevent their employees from leaving?

Empathy is an important driver of employee productivity, a survey by global nonprofit Catalyst has found.

It surveyed almost 900 employees in the United States working across different industries and found empathy is “a must-have” in today’s workplace, especially in times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Employees now are looking for managers, leaders, and companies who will not just acknowledge these hardships but put them front and centre in a strategy to lead ethically, responsibly, and equitably,” the report said.

“Our current research shows that cultivating empathic leadership is an effective strategy to respond to [the] crisis with the heart and authenticity that many employees crave—and boost productivity”.

Why are people leaving their jobs?

The Microsoft 2021 Work Trend Index showed 41 per cent of the global workforce are considering resigning this year. This is almost double the amount in the two years before the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile in Germany, Europe’s largest economy, more than a third of companies said they had staff shortages in July. It was the highest rate in three years, according to an Ifo institute study.

Much of the reason for the employee exodus is because of the ripple effect of the pandemic, as people reevaluate their careers and workplaces. In other cases, employees want to continue working remotely and their bosses are no longer offering this option.

What is empathy?

Empathy is defined as the ability to recognise, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person.

And an empathetic leader, the study says, is someone who demonstrates care, concern and understanding for employees’ life circumstances.

The study also shows the definition of empathy is more complex and can be split into three categories: head/thinking (cognative empathy), heart/feeling (affective empathy) and action/doing (behavioral empathy).

How can empathy help leaders?

The study found that 61 per cent of people with highly empathic senior leaders report often or always being innovative at work compared to only 13 per cent of people with less empathic senior leaders.

It also found 76 per cent of people with highly empathic senior leaders report often or always being engaged, compared to only 32 per cent of people with less empathic senior leaders.

Getty via Canva
Empathy is an important driver of employee productivity, a survey by global nonprofit Catalyst has found.Getty via Canva

Empathy was also shown to help prevent employees from leaving, particularly women of colour. The study found 33 per cent of women of colour with less empathic senior leaders are thinking about leaving their organisation, compared to only 18 per cent of women of colour with highly empathic senior leaders.

Another key finding from the study was that managers also play a key role.

The study said as women bear the brunt of job losses, schooling, and caregiving during the pandemic, a fundamental lack of support for women both at work and home has also become “glaringly apparent”.

But the study noted that managers can fill part of this gap. It showed that women who had highly empathic managers experienced less COVID-19-related burnout at work (54 per cent) than women with less empathic managers (63 per cent).

How can employers show empathy?

The study lists six ways employers can show empathy:

1. Intentionally discuss employees’ feelings and then reflect what they’ve just shared to make sure you understand correctly - without diverting the conversation to your own experiences.

2. Make it a priority to meet with and get to know employees at all levels as whole people, not as “just workers”.

3. If an employee or team shares an emotional experience or difficulty, give them the space to fully explain without interjecting or diverting the conversation.

4. Don’t assume your teams and employees know you care about them. Say it when you feel it: “I care about you; I’m concerned, and I understand how challenging this is”.

5. In one-on-one interactions, whether in person or virtually, if someone pauses while speaking to you, count to five slowly in your head, giving them time to find the right words and indicating that you are listening, and they can keep talking if they wish.

6. Pay attention to employee facial expressions and body language to recognise how they may be feeling; maintain good body posture and eye contact, as culturally appropriate, to show that you are listening and not multitasking.