Why empathy is the newest trend in benefits

This is the second in a four-part series taking an in-depth look at the changing role of HR leaders.

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With the pandemic, racial unrest and economic uncertainties causing untold levels of tension, stress and anxiety among employees, a growing number of employers–and HR executives–are realizing the importance of helping employees, being empathetic, connecting and being more proactive. Scores of research indicate that the current environment is one of the worst times for employees on record and that the pandemic is taking a dramatic toll on mental wellbeing.

“The realization of this lasting until the end of the year or more, it’s creating a lot of things–isolation, loneliness, stresses. And I think helping people through this [is important],” says Steve Pemberton, chief human resources officer at Workhuman, a software firm co-headquartered in Framingham, Mass., and Dublin.

Related: Is COVID-19 a turning point for workplace mental health?

Just how important is helping employees through the turmoil for HR leaders?

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Steve Pemberton

“It’s so important that you’ve got to make it your first priority. The idea that they’ll be fine, they’ll get through it,” we’re paying a high price for that mentality, Pemberton says. “What are people looking for? Acknowledgment that these are uncertain and anxious times; they’re looking for leadership as well–inspiration and connection. So I think you have to provide all those things in a different shape, way or form.”

To help with mental anguish in particular, HR leaders have added different benefits and leaned on existing resources. They’ve touted employee assistance programs and added apps and other platforms to help employees manage stress, sleep better or meditate. They’re providing education and workshops on how to get through a crisis company leaders or employees weren’t expecting.

Maybe more important, though, has been a sharp focus on empathy and flexibility. Sure, HR leaders are helping employees with guidance or group or one-on-one meetings, but a big part of their role is encouraging and training managers and other company leaders to be empathetic and flexible as well. Maybe meetings are recorded so employees can watch them at a time that better fits their schedule; workdays don’t have to be 9-5; if a dog barks or a baby cries during a meeting, it’s seen as commonplace, not distracting or irresponsible.

Kathie Patterson

“We need to provide more flexibility than what our employees are accustomed to,” says Kathie Patterson, CHRO of Ally Financial, a Detroit-based bank that employs some 8,700 workers. “A lot of employees say, ‘There’s no way I can sit at a desk for eight hours with my kids running around.’ So it’s really about helping our leaders understand how to listen and figure out how to provide greater flexibility in the workday.”

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Company leaders have to become agile and responsive to employee needs and understand what workers are going through. It’s easy to relate since HR leaders are feeling similar pain points.

“I have two elementary-aged children and, oh my gosh, it’s been really hard to supervise and be a teacher and get your job done,” says Jo Deal, chief human resources officer of software company LogMeIn. Parents also have been a big part of the equation for HR leaders. Companies have paid close attention to their parent populations, as those employees are left struggling as they juggle caring for their kids at home and getting work done.

Constant and open communication plays a big role, too–bigger than it has in the past.

Julie Taylor, CHRO at Broadridge Financial Solutions, a New York-based financial services firm with about 10,000 employees, says she’s prioritizing communication and telling employees “everything they know or don’t know.” Employees simply want to know what’s going on, and HR should be leaders in that, she says.

In addition to “weekly, if not daily” communication to employees about coronavirus, Broadridge put together an in-house website about COVID with leadership messages and sources curated by the company’s in-house medical team.

Julie Taylor

“You cannot communicate too much,” she says.

For its part, Workhuman promised no layoffs or furloughs at a time when economic uncertainty and a rocketing unemployment rate are further stressing employees. “The most important thing we can do is take the concern of employment off your plate,” Pemberton says.

Rethinking benefits strategy has also been paramount for HR leaders.

Ally Financial’s Patterson says that as soon as she noticed employees becoming anxious about the situation and in need of help, the company took a hard look at its benefits offerings as a way to help.

“As soon as we got employees out [of the workplace], all the schools were being canceled and childcare arrangements weren’t the same–and at that time we stepped back and revisited all our benefits,” Patterson says.

Ally expanded childcare support for employees (the company increased the days covered from 15 to 30 days); added two weeks of paid caregiver leave for employees caring for a family member with COVID-19; and offered a one-time $1,200 tax-free financial assistance payment for employees, among other offerings.

Related: Ally Financial’s COVID-19 strategy: Embrace employee benefits

“It was so very clear to our leadership team that the biggest support we could provide to our employees was to make sure we are providing the right support,” Patterson says. “It’s total rewards–it’s the financial security as well as giving them the assurance that, if they get sick tomorrow, we got them.

“Our employees are struggling,” she continues. “As a company, we say we like to demonstrate a high degree of care. This is the moment you’ve got to walk the talk.”


Read part one in the series here, part three here and part four here.

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.