5 minute read 1 Feb 2022
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How empathetic leadership can fix the Great Resignation

By EY Americas

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

5 minute read 1 Feb 2022
Related topics Consulting Workforce

The Great Resignation is causing a talent retention crisis. The latest EY research shows empathetic leadership could be a significant part of the solution.

  • More US workers than ever are choosing to leave their jobs, creating a talent retention crisis for organizations across sectors.
  • New research from EY reveals today’s employees want their leaders to be empathetic to both their professional and personal needs.
  • Organizations that take simple steps to build a culture of empathetic leadership can keep hold of their best people and win the war on talent.

There’s a lot being said right now about the ‘Great Resignation’. And rightly so. According to Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index, two in five workers (41%) worldwide are likely to consider leaving their current employer within the next year. Meanwhile, the Labor Department has spent several months reporting record breaking numbers of US workers voluntarily quitting their jobs.

Yet if the magnitude of the issue is clear, the causes are less so. In some cases, the forced reset of COVID-19 led people to re-evaluate their views on life, work and how to balance them. For some, it prompted them to pivot their career to make remote working a bigger part of their job going forward. Others, fresh from spending more time at home during lockdown, may have decided now is the moment to bring forward retirement plans or shift their focus to family life.

Whatever the reasons behind their workers’ itchy feet, the retention of talent is perhaps the greatest crisis organizations currently face. And for the leaders tasked with navigating this state of flux, the challenges are considerable.

But what does empathy actually mean? For workers, it ultimately comes down to whether or not they feel their needs – both personal and professional – are being listened to, understood and accommodated by their organization’s leadership. In many ways, this is nothing new; employees have long wanted to have their voices heard and desires met. But the pandemic has supercharged those expectations, especially around issues like mental wellbeing, flexible hours and hybrid working.

Tellingly, it’s also made them more willing to abandon employers who fail to deliver. To the point that over half (54%) of US workers say they have left a previous job because their boss wasn’t empathetic to their struggles at work. A similar number (49%) quit due to a lack of appreciation of pressures in their home life.


Empathetic leadership must be personal and authentic

Building an empathetic culture should therefore be a key and immediate priority for any organization looking to recruit and retain top talent. Yet the impact also reaches beyond that; there are also tangible business benefits for organizations that do so. According to the survey, nearly nine out of 10 (87%) of workers feel that mutual empathy between them and their leaders increases their efficiency. The same number (87%) report it boosts creativity, 86% believe it enhances innovation and 81% think it increases company revenue.

However to reap these rewards, leaders must walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Nearly half (46%) of the employees surveyed feel their company’s efforts to be empathetic toward them are dishonest while two in five (42%) claim their company doesn’t follow through on its promises. Marrying authenticity with action is therefore paramount, especially with the coming generation of Gen Z workers who are even more laser-focused on finding employers that share their values and allow them to be true to themselves at work.

It's also important that organizations balance programmatic ways of demonstrating empathy in the workplace with more individual ones. Indeed, the very essence of empathy is that it looks and feels different to everyone depending on their unique circumstances in the workplace and at home. Leaders should thus concentrate on building strong one on one relationships with their teams to boost connectivity, drive trust and allow them to take genuine, personalized steps to improve each individual’s wellbeing, productivity and job satisfaction.

Doing so may also address another pressing issue. The study reveals that while more than eight in ten (85%) employees say it's important for organizations to cultivate a climate in which diverse perspectives are valued, roughly a third (30%) of employees are not comfortable advocating for cultural changes and one in four (26%) do not feel comfortable raising ethical concerns with their boss.

Leaders face fresh talent retention challenges

Chief among these challenges is finding ways to effectively protect employees’ wellbeing and productivity from the other end of a laptop. Fostering a cohesive culture that people can shape and buy into is also far more taxing when they are rarely in the same workplace together, while a higher number of job vacancies means an increased workload and heightened risk of burnout for those who do choose to stay.

Likewise, more worker movement means more new starters, each of whom has to be embedded in the organization’s systems, processes and culture. Again, this onboarding process must increasingly happen remotely over Wi-Fi rather than in-person over coffee, which at best takes longer and at worst can become impossible.

Yet within this seemingly dark cloud is also a silver lining – because a solution may be waiting in the wings. Indeed, a recent EY study of more than 1,000 US workers found a direct correlation between the vital issue of retention and the perceived level of empathy in the workplace.

Qualities that provide a clear roadmap for leading with empathy

There are also some distinct qualities that US workers associate with an empathetic leader. Foremost among them is transparency in their decision-making, closely followed by fairness and a willingness to back up their promises and commitments with actions. Encouraging others to share their opinions and being trusted to handle difficult conversations make up the top five.

This is good news. First, because it provides a clear roadmap for senior executives looking to build empathy into the way they lead and oversee their organization. And second because all are characteristics that anyone can develop, implement and control on a daily basis.

Of course, elements like personal leadership style and the unique needs of different workers and workplaces may influence exactly how leaders choose to bring greater empathy to their role. But as we continue to move towards a post-pandemic future of hybrid working, now is the perfect moment for them to take stock and consider what steps to take in both the short- and long-term.  


Those who do so can begin building a culture in which every employee feels comfortable in bringing their full self to work, is confident in raising concerns and trusts that their voice will be heard. A culture that people will want to remain part of and thrive in rather than escape for greener pastures elsewhere. That is empathetic leadership. And it may well be the Great Resignation’s secret solution.

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By EY Americas

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

Related topics Consulting Workforce

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