Why workplace empathy needs to last beyond Covid

Covid-19 has led to a big focus on mental health with managers being encouraged to be more empathetic. How do we ensure that lasts after the pandemic?


What will happen to the workplace after Covid? It’s the six million dollar question. Will hybrid working predominate for office workers and what challenges will that bring? Will people have more choice over where they work and will that result in more women choosing to work from home while men come back to the office, and how will that affect career progression? Will there be a recognition of wider forms of flexible working for all those who don’t work in offices, given the focus has been so much on remote working during the pandemic?

Different themes are emerging from the research – some negative and some more positive. A study by the United Nations this week shows that women around the world are being squeezed out of work by the pandemic as they are more likely than men to sacrifice their careers to look after children whose schools have closed. The report says women are often paid less and have less job security. The UN is concerned that many of these women might not return to work at all, particularly in areas hard-hit by Covid-19. Other studies focus on the normalisation of flexible working, how Covid has brought into question many aspects of how we work and how it has highlighted the role of empathy in the workplace. This week workingmums.co.uk hosted a session on empathy and a report by My Confidence Matters shows how Covid has dramatically increased caring, nurturing and empathy in leaders.

That’s a huge positive, but will leaders remember this time when they saw into people’s home lives and remember it as Covid ebbs or will they see it is as a blip?

Of course, not all employers have been empathetic and one area where people have struggled is if they were only new to their job when lockdown hit. Our recent survey shows that a quarter of working mums who have lost their jobs since the Covid-19 pandemic began say it is due to childcare issues, often due to unsympathetic employers. Ruby, for instance, started her part-time financial services job eight weeks before lockdown and says the initial training provided was not good. During lockdown she had to switch to remote working around her two children. Her husband was shielding and she didn’t have any other support. She floundered and her company told her she was wasn’t making any progress. She felt pushed out. On the other hand, we know from employers we have worked with who have been empathetic to the challenges of new joiners and have taken great care when it comes to getting onboarding and remote support for new joiners right, by flexing training and providing buddies or mentors.

The empathy session we hosted stressed the need to listen and understand where people are coming from, not to assume anything and to take action that shows you have listened. At a session this week hosted by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership Caroline Gosling from Rubica talked about the need to ask questions that go further than simply ‘how are you?’ She said getting to know about employees’ lives was the sign of a good manager.

Amid all the awfulness of Covid, that focus on empathy is important. We need to ensure that it is embedded in reward systems for line managers and that it becomes a structural issue rather than an add-on. We also need to monitor and measure the long-term impact of Covid on women so that awareness of the Covid challenges women have disproportionately faced does not lead to a backwards move on gender diversity at work. And we need to focus on actions that ensure that doesn’t happen, including promoting flexible workplace cultures and understanding the barriers that might hold women back – and why addressing them matters.

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