Date posted: 08/03/2022 5 min read

Empathy: From A to C

Accountants and creatives face similar challenges of long work hours and burnout. Could more empathy from the boss help?

In Brief

  • Workers in both the accounting and creative sectors deal with long working hours, burnout and a lack of work-life balance.
  • Improving organisational empathy could address these challenges and avoid a “Great Resignation” scenario.
  • Empathy training is useful, but having the time to listen to and understand employees’ situations is even more important.

I get to listen and learn from people who work across a range of industries in my work as a researcher. I’m also fortunate that I can explore my passion for workplace wellbeing through this role. And by doing this, I get to see the commonalities between the accounting (the ‘A’) and creative sectors (yes, that would be the ‘C’) when it comes to employee experience.

You may not think these two industries have much in common. The stereotype is that creatives are “the people who wear sneakers to work and use abundant Post-it notes while brainstorming”. Accountants are often pictured as Numbers People (Homo Numerus?) who wear decidedly more sensible shoes to work.

So what do these two groups share? Well, data shows that long working hours, burnout and a lack of work-life balance are key concerns for people in both sectors. As a result, these two industries seem particularly vulnerable to what was dubbed in the US as The Great Resignation – a wave of quitting that’s anticipated to come our way in 2022.

PwC’s 2021 report, What Workers Want: Winning the War for Talent, found that 38% of the 1800 Aussie workers surveyed planned to leave their current employer in the next 12 months. In New Zealand, Auckland University of Technology’s (AUT’s) Wellbeing@Work study found the percentage of people with “high turnover intentions” – that is, they were keen to change jobs – increased from 34.7% in May 2020 to 46.4% in April 2021. In other words, almost half those surveyed were ready to move on.

As for creatives, a 2021 study run by Mentally-Healthy in Australia found 41% of people employed in the creative industries intended to look for a new role over the coming year. (I contributed to that study, titled ‘The Empathy Project’, as a survey writer.)

How empathy can stop an exodus

For both industries, there is a clear opportunity to improve the use of organisational empathy to help mitigate an exodus.

“There is a clear opportunity to improve the use of organisational empathy to help mitigate an exodus.”

Almost nine in 10 respondents in the Mentally-Healthy study said that empathy in the workplace was very or extremely important to them personally. But just a little over four in 10 agreed that it was very or extremely important to the organisation they work for.

That disparity implies a significant difference between the workers’ personal values and the cultural values of the places where they work.

The same situation is seen in many accounting firms. Dr Carly Moulang CA is an associate professor in accounting at Melbourne’s Monash University. Along with Dr Alessandro Ghio from Laval University in Canada, for two years she has been researching how to support the wellbeing of women accountants [see Acuity December/ January 2021].

Their latest research into the accounting workplace highlights the importance of empathy in contributing to a sense of psychological safety that enables employees – particularly women employees – to thrive.

They note that, “The culture of many accounting firms was described as being completely inconsistent with the ‘work-life balance’ narrative that those same firms like to spruik...”

Moulang highlighted to me the importance of formal supporting practices within organisations (such as caring leave, flexible working arrangements, hybrid working guidelines) in providing a clear framework of empathy and support for employees.

These formal practices and policies were identified as more common among Big Four firms. However, it was the informal practices (such as day-to-day leadership support and autonomy in the work employees do) that had a significantly greater positive impact on worker wellbeing.

These informal practices are more prevalent in non-Big Four accounting firms, they found.

Empathy takes time

So, what can be done to bring more empathy to our workplaces? As a trained psychological strengths profiler (not quite as impressive sounding as a forensic profiler but probably more useful in a standard workplace) I meet many people who are naturally empathetic. However, I’d also note that most people I speak with are very willing to learn to be more empathetic as they recognise the value of empathy as a personal and professional skill.

Of course, there are empathy training courses available, but often what is really required to build and demonstrate our sense of empathy is our time. Time was, in fact, identified as the number one barrier to empathy in the Empathy Project study: time to actively notice how others around you are behaving, time to have one-on-one conversations where you listen wholly (frankly, without judgment, with curiosity), and time to stop and consider how you might respond to best demonstrate support and action.

Put yourself in someone else’s shoes

When I do consumer research, I use an approach for empathy mapping based on the model of ‘Think, Feel, Do’. What might this person be thinking, how might they be feeling, and how is this affecting their behaviour?

To put it in simpler terms, on Wednesday mornings I teach an ethics class to a group of Year 2 students at my local primary school. A crucial aspect of the class is to ensure we always consider other people’s perspectives. In the case of seven-year-olds this might be trying to think about why their classmate doesn’t wish to share in a class birthday cake (perhaps she simply doesn’t like chocolate cake, perhaps her birthday is in the school holidays and she is upset she can’t share it with her class, perhaps it is Ramadan or Lent so she is not eating sweets).

In the case of an employee experiencing burnout, this might be taking the time to understand, without judgment, why they are feeling this way based on their total life situation (family, health, work, goals, values) and not just what they are experiencing at work.

For leaders, the time taken to share your own experiences, dreams, concerns and realities is incredibly powerful in cultivating a culture of empathy. Leaders must actively demonstrate this behaviour in combination with formal policies to foster compassion and encourage informal empathy practices within an organisation – otherwise, as Moulang says, “it’s just window dressing”.

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