- Studies show that empathetic managers increase people’s job satisfaction and cultivate loyalty.
- But recent research suggests that managers are themselves burned out and exhausted.
- Insider spoke with experts for advice on how managers can engage with employees.
People don’t leave jobs — they leave managers. It’s a human-resources cliché, but as anyone who’s ever quit a horrible boss knows, there’s a certain truth to it.
Study after study shows that the personality trait that separates good bosses from bad ones is empathy. In fact, nearly 90% of US workers said that having an empathetic manager increases their job satisfaction, productivity, and cultivated loyalty, according to a 2021 survey by Ernst & Young of more than 1,000 American workers. More than half of respondents said they had left a job because their bosses weren’t empathetic to their struggles at work or in their personal lives.
Unfortunately for workers, research suggests that empathetic bosses are a rare breed. A survey of nearly 3,400 employees conducted in early 2022 by Gartner, found that only 29% report that their leader is a “human leader” — that is a leader who displays authenticity, adaptability, and empathy.
That could be because managers are themselves exhausted and stressed. “American managers are feeling an extraordinary amount of burnout,” Elora Voyles, an industrial organizational psychologist at Tiny Pulse, which makes employee-engagement software, told Insider. “On top of the heavy workload, managers have played an important role in supporting employees during emotionally difficult times, and they are simply being overloaded.”
Middle managers are more stressed than any of their co-workers, according to a report published last year from the Future Forum.
At a time when people continue to quit their jobs at unprecedented rates — quietly or not, employee stress levels are skyrocketing, and the ways in which Americans think about work are shifting, these findings have implications for how organizations retain workers.
“People are asking themselves: Do I feel cared about? Does my boss understand what I’m going through? And do I feel a sense of belonging and purpose?” said Steve Payne, head of EY’s Americas consulting group. And when the answer to those questions is no, he says, “the grass starts looking greener elsewhere.”
A management disconnect
When the coronavirus hit in 2020, employers were sympathetic to the many burdens and challenges employees shouldered, Payne said. But even as the pandemic has dragged on, the world has returned to some sense normal. And many employers have become almost inured to the stress of their workforces.
What’s more, gestures by some organizations to help workers — including expanded mental-health benefits, wage increases, and remote-work options to stave off burnout — have fallen by the wayside as employers tighten their belts amid an uncertain economy.
“At the individual level, people don’t have the sense that their managers care about their circumstances,” Payne said.
That may help explain why workers continue to leave their jobs in droves. Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that while the rate of quitting has come down somewhat after reaching record highs last year, it still surpasses prepandemic numbers. The upshot: Americans still aren’t staying in their jobs, even as fears of a recession settle over the economy.
It doesn’t have to be this way. “Managers need to close the say-do gap by creating environments where workers feel valued and understood,” he said. When managers themselves are feeling depleted, however, that may require some bigger-picture solutions.
Developing an empathetic mindset
The best managers are those who see their employees not as vessels for accomplishing tasks but as people with families, responsibilities, and full lives outside work, according to Dane Jensen, a leadership expert who teaches at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Canada.
So why are so many frontline managers still failing to do that? There are a few reasons, according to Mo Cayer, a professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of New Haven. But it often boils down to empathy fatigue.
In Cayer’s view, the problem is systemic. Fortunately, a vast body of research has found that empathic behaviors can be learned, and organizations should invest in leadership training and development.
Short of big-picture initiatives, Cayer advises people to take the matter into their own hands to learn how to cultivate more empathy than they thought they had. Developing an empathetic mindset requires exhibiting grace not only to others, but also to yourself. It involves recognizing that most everyone is doing their best under the circumstances.
That’s a note to burned-out managers: Tell your own boss you need help, for the good of the team.
“Training starts with people reflecting on their own experiences and thinking back on times when they weren’t treated with compassion,” he said. “It needs to be drilled down on a deep level.”
An earlier version of this article was published on January 14, 2022.