How Belonging and Empathy Reduce Turnover

May 30, 2022

People have been leaving their jobs in droves over the past few years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs in December, and a record-breaking 10.9 million jobs were vacant at the end of 2021. This trend doesn’t seem to be leveling off anytime soon either; 43% of the global workforce is likely to consider changing jobs in the coming year, and that number is as high as 52% among Gen-Z and millennials. This “Great Resignation” has made it imperative for businesses to understand why employees are leaving and how to fix it. Unfortunately, many companies assume their employees are quitting for the wrong reasons.

Two factors come readily to mind to explain increases in job turnover: unsatisfactory wages and issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). With the economic bust brought on by the pandemic, and the fact that both women and Black professionals have been leading the charge in resignations since 2021, these assumptions are certainly not unfounded. But companies that have spent time and money ameliorating these issues have not seen as big a return on their investment as they might have expected. 

In the U.S. alone, about $8 billion per year is spent on diversity trainings, and yet there is little to no evidence that these trainings have made companies more diverse. And though the average salary increase has risen 21% from 2021 to 2022, this does not seem to influence turnover intentions much – perhaps because a huge amount of the increase in satisfaction when switching to a higher-paying job, at least 80%, is due to improvements other than wages. The failure of diversity and wage-increase initiatives shows that there is a fundamental mismatch between why companies think their employees are quitting and why they are actually quitting. 

So why are employees leaving their companies now more than ever? To answer this, it can help to empathize with these former employees, to try to understand their feelings and perspective. Walking a mile in their shoes might help us understand the forces pulling them toward other obligations in their life or pushing them away from their current company. Moreover, being more empathetic not only helps us understand why employees are resigning, but could itself help reduce employee turnover. Insights from behavioral science research suggest that cultivating empathy in the workplace – including a sense of belonging among all workers and greater emotional intelligence among managers – is vital for employee retention.

Employees Crave an Empathetic Workplace

An empathetic workplace is one of the top needs of working professionals, who are keenly aware when their company lacks empathy. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) surveyed nearly 2,500 U.S. workers to better understand how they experience empathy in the workplace – and how this impacts their employers. Critically, 97% of those surveyed believed empathy is essential for a healthy workplace culture. What’s more, employees who rated their organization low in empathy were also more than twice as likely to have actively searched for a new job in the past six months. Another survey of workers conducted by Businessolver found that 72% of employees would consider leaving their current company if it displayed less empathy, but 92% said they would be more likely to stay with their current company if it empathized with their needs more.

These findings highlight a key insight: company culture has a massive impact on employee retention. In one study that analyzed data from over 34 million U.S. workers’ online profiles, toxic corporate culture was far and away the top reason employees left their companies – over ten times more important for predicting attrition than compensation. The biggest factors contributing to toxic workplace culture all orbit around a lack of empathy: failure to promote DEI, workers feeling disrespected, and unethical behavior, to name a few.

If you are feeling dismayed by your workplace’s lack of empathy, take heart! The good news is that companies can improve their culture of empathy with some relatively minor tweaks. Research in behavioral science tells us that active trainings designed to increase empathy in business settings really do work. Even simple adjustments can help cultivate a more empathetic company culture.

Two Ways to Increase Workplace Empathy

There are many different expressions of empathy, such as perspective taking, active listening, and validating someone’s feelings. Behavioral science research reveals that two components in particular can drastically reduce turnover and are relatively easy to implement in the workplace: a sense of belonging and emotional intelligence.

#1 – Help Employees Feel Like They Belong

We all want to feel included – in our personal lives, and also at work. When employees feel that they belong, everyone benefits. Research conducted by Harvard Business Review with BetterUp found that high belonging was linked to a whopping 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days. For a 10,000-person company, this represents annual savings of more than $52 million. Unfortunately, many companies fail to make their employees feel included, resulting in greater attrition. One survey’s findings suggest that nearly half of employees in the U.S. have left a job because they didn’t feel like they belonged, and over a third have quit because they had difficulty connecting with colleagues. 

Behavioral science research reveals a similar trend. Even more so than outright harassment or bullying, social ostracism in the workplace predicted worse employee wellbeing, less employee engagement, and higher turnover rates three years later. BetterUp also conducted a behavioral experiment with over 2,000 live participants to measure the costs of exclusion. Workers were assigned to a team with two other “participants” (bots programmed to act like teammates) to play a collaborative virtual ball-toss game. Included workers had teammates that consistently threw them the ball, whereas excluded workers were rarely tossed the ball. After this, workers completed a simple task where they could earn money for their entire team. Again and again, excluded participants put less effort into the task than included participants, even though it meant sacrificing their own earnings as well. Excluding others causes them to give less effort to their teams.

So how do we help employees feel like they belong? One easy way to do this is to encourage employees to discuss common experiences and share their stories. A study of 9-1-1 dispatchers tested a six-week email intervention that did just this. Workers who participated in the intervention were sent a weekly email from a supervisor or department leader that contained two key elements: a work-related story from another dispatcher, and a prompt that encouraged workers to reflect on and anonymously share a positive professional experience their peers might relate to. The results were astounding: resignation rates were cut by half just four months after the intervention concluded. When workers had a platform to give advice, share common experiences, and reflect on how their professional experiences could support their peers, their sense of belonging grew stronger, and turnover decreased in the process.

Key Takeaway: Give employees opportunities to share common experiences with each other 

#2 – Cultivate Emotionally Intelligent Leadership

Most organizations pick leaders or managers in part because they demonstrate general intelligence or competence. But a key type of intelligence often overlooked here is emotional intelligence. An emotionally intelligent person exhibits awareness, understanding, control, and expression of their emotions in interpersonal contexts. Employees at all levels can benefit from improving their emotional intelligence, but research shows that the emotional intelligence of team leaders is directly related to their workers’ likelihood of staying with their company. About 23% of employees’ engagement with their work is influenced by their sense of their direct supervisor’s emotional intelligence. This is in part because organizational leaders set the tone for the emotional culture of the entire workplace. In one study, managers with lower emotional intelligence were also more likely to cultivate a negative, unempathetic organizational culture. As a result, employees of these managers were 38% more likely to intend to resign in the next six months.

Improving managers’ emotional intelligence may seem like no small feat, but a few simple nudges can encourage leaders to be more aware, in control, and expressive of their feelings. One way to do this is to encourage managers to use more emotionally intelligent language when they communicate with their team. One study found that when supervisors used supportive, empathetic language and emphasized the unique value of each employee to contribute to their organization’s mission, this fostered a more positive organizational culture. Whether or not supervisors used this sort of language accounted for 30% of employees’ feelings of connectedness to the organization. Understanding and encouraging communications from leaders can radically improve workers’ relationship to their organization.

Another way to cultivate a more emotionally intelligent workplace is to prompt people to write about their feelings surrounding their work. Researchers in one experiment used this technique and tested whether it helped workers feel more in control and aware of their emotions. Participating employees wrote about their feelings and thoughts connected to their last workday or an especially important workday in the past for 20 minutes a day over a three-day period. The prompt encouraged workers to reflect in writing on how they could effectively perceive, use, understand, and regulate emotions in themselves and others in workplace contexts. Two weeks later, employees who participated in the intervention scored 15% higher on emotional intelligence metrics compared to employees who wrote about neutral, non-work experiences. The intervention also reduced reported experiences of workplace hostility and exclusionary behavior, showing that emotional intelligence can cultivate a culture of belonging, which, as we’ve discussed, is critical for reducing turnover.

Key Takeaway: Encourage leaders (and team members) to reflect on, write about, and communicate their work-related emotions with empathy and understanding

The Bottom Line

Creating a workplace of empathy pays off for businesses. The top 10 companies in the 2015 Global Empathy Index increased in value more than twice as much as the bottom 10, and generated 50% more earnings. The virtues of empathy are even more pronounced when it comes to reducing the costs associated with high turnover and low employee engagement. According to a Businessolver survey, 60% of employees in the U.S. would be willing to take slightly less pay, and 77% would be willing to work longer hours, if their employer showed empathy, but 78% would leave an employer for equal pay if the other company was empathetic.

Research in behavioral science shows that companies can make their workplace more empathetic in two key ways: promoting a greater sense of belonging among employees and higher emotional intelligence among leaders. These two components of an empathetic workplace can be improved with simple but effective practices. Giving workers the space to share and discuss common experiences can generate a greater sense of belonging and connection with their coworkers and the company. Encouraging management to use empathetic language in their team communications helps workers feel respected and valued, and prompting employees at all levels to reflect on and write about their feelings surrounding their work helps everyone be more aware and in control of how their emotions impact others in the workplace.

It may seem daunting to try to change your business’s entire culture to one of empathy. But small interventions and changes like the ones mentioned above can go a long way in service of this goal, while dropping turnover rates in the process – a nice side-effect to making your company a place where everyone feels they are included and understood.

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