In tough times, should CHROs turn to empathy tools?

For decades, Elvis Costello and other rockers have been wondering “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?” Today, HR leaders are having a similar reckoning, as a deep understanding of the challenges that employees face becomes a cornerstone of the HR leader’s role.

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The data backs up the need for empathy in HR. The Harvard Business Review reports that 73% of employees in the U.S. are caregivers for a child, parent, pet or friend, responsibilities that are surely taxing on an employee’s personal and professional lives. Accordingly, 77% of employers said they will be increasing family care benefits—such as fertility, parental and bereavement—before 2023, according to WTW‘s Emerging Trends in Health Care survey. 

Despite that progress, there may be an empathy disconnect. According to Gallup findings presented in March, fewer than 25% of U.S. employees feel strongly that their organization cares about their wellbeing, which the market research and polling firm said was “the lowest percentage in nearly a decade.”

Related: Employee experience will be the topic of several sessions at the 2022 HR Technology Conference, set for Sept. 13-16 at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Learn more and register here.

So, like many other corners of HR, is there an opportunity for technology to assist in influencing empathy? Debi Yadegari, CEO and founder of employee benefits tool Villyge, thinks so.

For starters, empathy tools make up their own category of solutions and shouldn’t be confused with standard L&D tools that typically do not offer empathy advice or ways to nurture understanding in managers. Yadegari says that many of today’s leadership and development platforms focus on upskilling managers to push productivity and handle performance reviews “but not a single one goes to how to respond to employees they’re managing for that stack of personal issues that every employee carries with them on a day-to-day basis.”

Villyge’s solution is designed to help working parents manage and share relevant information from their personal lives—such as a pregnancy, the start of fertility treatments or adoption efforts, a need to care for a special needs family member and more—with their employers. It provides HR leaders and the employee’s supervisor with details about what the employee will need—such as time off for IVF treatments or to meet with an adoption attorney—and provides employer expectations such as deadlines and job responsibilities to the employee. Villyge also offers access to information and services for lactation, returning to work, parenting tweens and teens, and work-life balance along with a network of coaches and health specialists.

Corporate housing provider Travelers Haven has been using Villyge to broaden the benefits that the Newark, N.J.-based company offers its employees, especially in the area of mental health.

“Villyge not only supports our working parents but provides coaching and guidance on many topics that traditional benefits miss,” says Erin Pierson, HR generalist for Travelers Haven. “It has helped open the lines of communication between team members and their managers and has reinforced to our employees that we as a company care about their wellbeing in all areas of their lives, not just at work.”

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When it began offering Villyge, Travelers Haven assumed that its working parents would be the primary users of the solution but soon found that other employees were seeking support in different areas, from career advancement to managing grief and advancing wellbeing.

“Our managers not only utilize the personalized coaching for their own needs, they’re able to receive ‘just-in-time’ guidance to help them understand what their team members might be going through,” says Heidi Sayler, manager of HR and talent acquisition for Travelers Haven.

The path to leading with empathy  

The main goal of empathy tools like Villyge and others is to promote understanding, especially among supervisors, which can ultimately support productivity. “If employees don’t have the understanding of their manager, that’s when they’re going to start to check out. Studies show that when you don’t have the support of your manager, you are less productive,” says Yadegari. 

Leading with empathy all comes down to education, according to Ron Gura, co-founder and CEO of bereavement services provider Empathy.

“Of course, there are some things that cannot be taught. If someone never suffered loss, they won’t necessarily be able to empathize fully with it,” he says. “Even if someone did, their experience can be vastly different than a colleague, as everyone experiences grief differently.”

For example, managers need to realize that when an employee loses a loved one, families spend, on average, more than 420 hours dealing with tasks related to the loss in the months following the death. “When managers and colleagues understand the magnitude of challenges bereaved workers face while grieving, empathy comes along with it,” he says.

Empathy is also the cornerstone of Betterleave’s bereavement solution, which offers bereavement services navigation, grief and loss counseling, and estate and life planning for employees.

“Employers and managers are not equipped to support bereavement and the grief-related needs of their workforce beyond leave,” says Betterleave CEO Cara McCarty. “And the truth is, managers can be an employer’s biggest asset or biggest liability depending on how they communicate to an employee.” 

Empathy is a hot commodity for managers and employers, the Wall Street Journal reports; it cited LinkedIn data that the number of member posts that included terms like empathy, empathetic, compassion and caring doubled from 2019 to 2021. But will this crop of empathy solutions take the backburner if the U.S. enters a recession, as economists predict, and things at the office become lean and mean? 

McCarty, a former HR professional, says that in times of a recession, budget cuts are typically made to recruitment and headcount first, followed by perks and then learning and development initiatives. Health and wellbeing, and leave policies—including family care, fertility, parental and bereavement benefits—are typically not as immediately impacted, she says. 

“These types of benefits and policies are table stakes for employers,” she says, noting that policies alone aren’t enough to convey empathy. “Having empathy and leading with compassion—either innate or learned—during easy or difficult moments is a choice.” 

Layoffs and belt-tightening do not need to go hand in hand with a loss of empathy, adds Jason Averbook, CEO of Leapgen who will give a keynote on Sept. 16 at the 2022 HR Technology Conference entitled, “How to Continue to Disrupt Yourself: A Sustainable Guide to Digital Transformation.”  

“Empathy will go out the window in organizations that do not truly focus on the fact the business goes up and down,” he says, “but humanity must be the constant no matter the business environment.” 

Phil Albinus
Phil Albinus is the former HR Tech Editor for HRE. He has been covering personal and business technology for 25 years and has served as editor and executive editor for a number of financial services, trading technology and employee benefits titles. He is a graduate of SUNY New Paltz and lives in the Hudson Valley with his audiologist wife and three adult children.