Interviews

“The corporate world is finally waking up to the fact it needs empathy.”

Belinda Parmar OBE, CEO of The Empathy Business, on why now is the time for business leaders to address overwhelm and embrace empathy

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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“The corporate world is finally waking up to the fact that it needs empathy.” Belinda Parmar, OBE founder of The Empathy Business is explaining the tectonic shift afoot in the workplace in the wake of the pandemic. 

“The pandemic has placed a mirror on our lives like never before, both at home and at work,” she explains. She believes that the merging of our work and home lives that came amidst the strain of lockdown has prompted a wholesale questioning of the lack of meaning in our work. 

A lack of meaning that is not just fuelling the much-written about ‘great resignation’ but the emotional burnout, overwhelm and mental health crisis currently taking its toll on the workplace. For the universal truth of the pandemic, namely that we found ourselves in the same storm but vastly different boats, is creating tensions in the workplace.

Expectations of what constitutes both a fulfilling career and a reasonable workplace vary greatly, creating friction. Data from NABS recently revealed that 1 in 10 calls to their advice line are now related to conflict in the workplace. It is an ecosystem in which empathy in leadership is not just a nice to have, but business critical. 

Learning to thrive in an age of uncertainty 

Pointing to the negative impact that the Coronavirus crisis has inflicted on employees’ mental health, Parmar points to the negative impact that the lack of job security had. Combined with the uncertainty surrounding health, the pandemic contributed to creating an environment in which people felt an unprecedented sense of being ‘under threat’.

It is an environment which Parmar believes means that leaders need to be mindful about building what she describes as ‘really strong anchors and solid foundations in their teams.” She explains: “Clarity is really important, leaders need to be clear with on why are we doing this, what impact is it going to have, as well as answering  ‘what is your impact as an individual?’” 

Ultimately in the wake of the pandemic which swept away so much personal autonomy and sense of control; ensuring that employees feel that sense of ownership and control within their own workplaces is vital. 

Parmar shares that at the start of the pandemic at some companies customer-facing colleagues felt that sense of personal power and impact as heavy processes had to be lifted in order to respond to the pandemic. 

“At the beginning of the pandemic, people had a sense of agency and at some companies that felt like it had been taken away. We are seeing that manifest itself in how employees feel and that growing sense of being overwhelmed and emotionally burnt out," she adds.

When it comes to overwhelm and burnout it’s not an individual's responsibility it is a company responsibility

Belinda Parmar OBE, CEO of The Empathy Business

The ticking workplace burnout timebomb

The conversation surrounding workplace burnout, which refers to the feeling of extreme physical and emotional exhaustion, is evolving. In 2019 the World Health Organisation updated its definition as a “syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It is defined by three symptoms; feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from a job or negative feelings towards your career and reduced professional productivity. 

The new definition centred burnout as a condition which is caused by an individual's work and highlights that their relationship to their work may lead to the condition. A shift which implicitly underlines the responsibility of workplaces themselves to actively foster conditions and manage workloads in a way which doesn’t contribute to employee burnout.

“When it comes to overwhelm and burnout it’s not an individual's responsibility it is a company responsibility,” explains Parmar. “There is loads of lip service leadership and lots of empathy washing. One company asked us to deliver empathy in a box, to simply tour their branches.”

This illusion of providing a ‘quick-fix’ to this endemic problem is one that Parmar recognises. She points out that many leaders are missing the point when it comes to empathy; it's not a box or a tick box, it's a tectonic shift in leadership that true leaders need to be role models. A shift which demands a fundamental change in how you measure success. 

Empathy in leadership

It’s a shift that Parmar has embraced in her own career. Having started out in finance, then advertising and teaching her T-shaped experience means she never resorts to generic advice. While her experience as a woman in the male-dominated tech sphere underlined the importance of inclusion in a very practical way. 

She pointed to the fact that amongst the big tech brands no one was really thinking of women. This prompted the launch of Lady Geek - a tech blog which was ahead of the curve in the ongoing drive to get more women into tech and to stop marketing to women through the lens of ‘pink it and shrink it.’

Looking back Parmar reflects on the sluggish response of the industry. She explains: “This was pre the me too movement and we kept getting these smaller budgets to reach that niche audience of 51% of the world. We simply were not getting big enough budgets to make meaningful change.”

The folly of confusing empathy and sympathy

The frustration with women being treated as a niche audience rather than half the world, combined with the growing tranche of men wanting to access her training led Parmar to relaunch the business. Proving that frustration is fuel for innovation, The Empathy Business is thriving. 

But do business leaders understand what empathy looks like in action? Parmar is clear that empathy is a powerful driver of business. Put simply when people have a sense of belonging, feel a sense of agency and know that their voice is heard they perform better and have more impact in the workplace. 

Yet, not all leaders understand or recognise this red thread. “The most common thing I see is a confusion between sympathy and empathy - sympathy is a pity party, empathy is action,” she explains.

Pointing to the writer Brene Brown she shares her view that while empathy fuels connection, sympathy fuels disconnection and you end up with a parent and child relationship in the workplace. Mutual accountability is vital in a remote workplace. She explains: “You really need people to operate in an empowered way and giving people back more control of their lives can give them more purpose and sense of agency.”

With this in mind in the place of the banality of process-driven appraisals, she recommends three clear questions for employees. These are; do you feel visible, do you feel cared for and do you know what your purpose is? “I would tear up the old engagement surveys. The world of work has changed so much we have to change the way we measure success,” she adds. 

The great reset

In the wake of the pandemic, there has been a fundamental reappraisal of the role of work in people’s lives. Parmar explains: “The issue is a lot of leaders don't ask what people’s personal values are - if you were running a marathon as your colleague I would want to know about that. Have you got a new puppy, an ill parent - leaders need to know that too.”

It's a human approach that ultimately could put a full stop to the rising conflict in hybrid workplaces. As Parmar explains: “Ultimately if you know that person is going to a yoga class in the day because they need that respite, you might have a slightly more empathetic response. Yes of course our lives have blended in a way - we need to know and ask relevant questions - emotional intelligence and empathy is the number one skill for leaders.”

In the wake of the great reset, it's a skill set that is increasingly important for attracting and retaining the best talent. A shift which demands making space for the next generation of talent to thrive. To this end Parmar measures the amount of time senior staff speak compared to junior staff. 

While the pandemic is far from over, there is no question that the way we measure success has changed irrevocably. Parmar believes that ensuring the next generation of talent have a clear purpose, supported by empathetic leadership, is key to empowering changemakers to run their own race.