Why we need more empathy in the workplace

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According to the 2018 State of Workplace Empathy study96% of employees consider it important for employers to demonstrate empathy, and yet 92% believe this trait is undervalued in their workplace

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This past Monday night, I had the privilege of being a panelist at an event hosted by the March of Dimes Minnesota about the #UnspokenStories of infertility, prematurity and child-loss in our community. Among the themes discussed that night, one of the more salient topics that almost everyone shared was the need for employers and workplaces to be more empathetic. That topic was one that I know well and shared deeply with my fellow panelists. What does empathy in the workplace mean? Well, for me and my fellow panelists it’s about having an employer that respects and understands that family comes first. And it’s a work culture that supports a flexible work schedule, for when life’s unexpected annoyances (like when the stove breaks and or the pipe bursts) to major health and family crises inevitably come up (like going into pre-term labor and requiring a long hospitalization).

Our Family’s Crisis:

A little over four years ago in August 2015, I experienced pre-term labor at 24 weeks (a typical gestation is 40 weeks) with my daughter, Lana Rose, due to severe preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome. To say my husband Mike and I were scared and underprepared would be an understatement. And what’s worse–not even a week after my emergency c-section–my employer terminated my position. Talk about insult to injury (and a lack of empathy to boot)! At the time, I was the healthcare policyholder for our family. Our entire lives were turned upside down overnight. We went from being a young, healthy, professional married couple with a dual income; to a family of three, a single income, no insurance and a severely critical child in the hospital.

More than 64% of mothers were either primary or co-breadwinners in 2015. (source)

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After a long 6-month hospitalization, I went from being a Stay-at-Hospital-Mom to a Stay-at-Home-Mom–neither of which were part of my career plan. Despite the difficult circumstances, we were fortunate in many aspects: we were able to get onto my husband’s insurance plan with little out-of-pocket expenses; we were able to make ends meet on a single income, despite an increase in care-related expenses; and most importantly, our daughter’s health and quality of life were better than we could have hoped for, being born so young and so small (11 oz / 330 grams).

Turning Point:

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The toll of becoming a caregiver to a medically-fragile infant and the challenges of navigating financial ups and downs, rigid, out-of-date and out-of-touch workplace rules, and unsympathetic work culture, left an impact on our family. At 22 months, just shy of Lana’s 2nd birthday, I knew I desperately wanted to go back to work, but I also knew that I needed a job that was going to allow me to work from home and/or give me the flexibility to care for our daughter’s medical needs, which at the time, included numerous doctor’s appointments each month and early intervention therapy appointments almost every day of the week.

It was at that point Mike and I decided to do something radically different. We founded our company, Proofpoint Marketing, as a way to address a growing challenge for us and for so many in the workforce today: the ability to balance our career with meaningful and gratifying work, while also having the support and flexibility to attend to the more important things in life. That is, everything outside of work: family, kids, partners/spouses, friends, travel and other personal needs and obligations.

I am proud to say that Proofpoint is a fully-remote agency and we offer a flexible work environmentunlimited paid time-off, as well as a health care reimbursement plan (and this list will continue to grow as our company matures).

Our Vision: Create a people-centric, family-first, inspired workplace.

We are creating a new kind of agency; one that emphasizes an unprecedented level of trust and transparency for our team. We believe in order to do good work, you have to feel good. And for everyone, that means something slightly different. Our family-first culture allows employees to get one step closer to the ideal work/life balance they each desire and aspire to cultivate for themselves.

How can you increase Empathy at work?

Thankfully, only a small portion of families will experience pre-term birth or a stay in the NICU (though that number keeps growing in the United States). Yet that doesn’t mean empathy and a flexible work schedule aren’t any less valued or necessary today. There are hundreds of reasons (frankly, far too many to enumerate here) why an employee would seek a company that offered a flexible work environment and/or a fully remote position.

In a 2018 survey conducted by Zenefits on The State of Flexible Work Arrangements:

73% of employees said flexible work arrangements increased their satisfaction at work.

78% of employees said flexible work arrangements made them more productive.

77% of employees consider flexible work arrangements a major consideration when evaluating future job opportunities.

In the same study, an overwhelming majority (82%) said flexible work arrangements would have or already did have a positive impact on work-life balance. This will surely play a major role in attracting and retaining talent. 

While enabling a fully remote staff or creating a flexible work environment might seem far off for most companies, there are still many ways an employer can show empathy. In addition to our workplace culture, we cultivate empathy in the following ways:

  1. Listen: And really listen! Employees want to feel heard and want to be valued for their thoughts and contributions at work.

  2. Be relatable: I’ve heard from HR pros that you shouldn’t provide relatable stories to an employee. We think that’s pretty old school. Mike and I are human, too, and to show our humanity we have to be able to connect and relate on an emotional level with our team. Not every day and not for everything that comes up, but quite frequently.

  3. Trust & Transparency: We believe in sharing an unprecedented amount of information with our employees. We don’t feel like there needs to be a velvet rope for everything. Far too often, employees are kept out of key decisions and left on the outside and find out important details too late. We feel it’s important for our team to know what’s going, even if it’s not great. We’d rather be open and honest and have someone choose to leave our company, then keep people around in ignorance. That’s how we know who’s in it, and who’s not.

  4. Show Appreciation: A simple “thank you” goes a long way! We encourage our team to take time off after putting in long hours, or when life’s unexpected ups and downs get in the way. We encourage our team to show appreciation for each other by fostering a culture of engagement and open dialogue.

  5. Be Genuine: This is a no-brainer! We practice what we preach everyday. We are very honest, open and upfront about who we are, what we’re doing and where we’re going. If you’re not keeping it real, your team will know it.

How are you bringing empathy back into the workplace?