Employees are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their leaders, and it’s leading to turnover and low morale across businesses in the UK. We look at how attitudes towards leadership are shifting, as well as how taking an empathetic leadership approach can work to boost morale, increase innovation, and reduce turnover.

The UK is facing burnout

Recession risks remain and people continue to feel squeezed by the cost of living crisis, and so the UK risks becoming a ‘burnt out nation’. With a Mental Health UK Burnout Report finding that 35% of workers experienced high or extreme levels of pressure at work, it’s no surprise that absenteeism is on the rise. This means that less traditional leadership skills – empathy, cooperation, and the ability to build morale – are becoming more important than ever. 

Employees are quitting over bad management relationships

As bad relationships with managers are prompting one in three employees in the UK to quit their job (including 12% because of discrimination or harassment), it’s becoming increasingly important for leaders to identify the reasons behind employee discontent – which may involve adopting a new approach to managing employee relationships. 

According to our latest 2024 UK Jobs & Hiring Trends report, jobseeker confidence remains steady. This means that jobseekers continue to have a degree of leverage over pay and conditions. This means that leaders looking to attract candidates to their role may do well to examine what they are looking for from manager relationships. 

How empathetic leadership can boost workplace culture

Empathetic leadership may be one solution that can bolster relationships with your current employees, as well as attract new candidates through a positive workplace culture reputation. As the CEO & President of Catalyst Lorraine Hariton explained to Forbes, ‘The data shows that employees with highly empathic senior leaders report higher levels of creativity (61%) and engagement (76%) than those with less empathic senior leaders (13% and 32%, respectively)’. 

This may in part be because empathetic leaders are far better equipped to learn about the difficulties that employees are facing personally and professionally, and help them to maintain a healthy work-life balance

In crisis, empathy is a key solution

Studies show that particularly during times of crisis, people value empathetic leaders. According to research by the London School of Economics, ‘the praise heaped on women leaders during the pandemic signals a potential public hunger for a different, less traditional leadership style’. This potentially allows for non-traditional leadership traits, such as empathy, to come to the fore. 

While this research reflects on how these leadership skills were beneficial during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are still experiencing a time of crisis on multiple levels: the UK is on the edge of recession and employers and employees alike are struggling to make ends meet due to high living costs. 

According to the UK Government's Health and Safety Executive, work-related stress has continued to rise since the beginning of the pandemic in 2019. Some of the reasons behind this include workload, lack of managerial support, workplace bullying, and role uncertainly. Therefore, it’s clear the impact leaders have on the wellbeing and professional development of their employees.

Empathetic language may boost follower performance

Research further demonstrates a possible link between empathetic language and employee performance, especially customer service. Consider phrases like ‘I understand how you’re feeling’, and ‘I’d love to hear your view on things’. Using them can help employees feel motivated and also encourage them to contribute more to workplace discussions. They might also encourage less confident employees to contribute to discussions, potentially leading to greater innovation.

Empathy helps leaders take an active role in work-life balance

Forbes also found that empathy in a virtual-first world is particularly complex as people communicate mostly by body language, and virtual communication such as email removes this. Furthermore, the boundaries between the personal and the professional are increasingly blurring thanks to flexible working arrangements, which means that leaders may have to take a more active role in understanding the personal lives of their employees. 

Reframing empathy as a universal leadership skill

Seen as traditionally female traits, empathy and cooperation have historically not been seen as leadership skills, but this is changing. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Adern has been leading the way in pioneering a ‘politics of kindness’

She resigned in early 2023 on the note that: ‘[she hopes she leaves] New Zealand with a belief that you can be kind but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused, and that you can be your own kind of leader, one who knows when it’s time to go’. Adern was also respected for her commitment to equity (including gender equity) in general during her time in her role as New Zealand’s PM. 

Do women really have better empathy skills?

While Adern has been celebrated for her inspiration to women in leadership roles, is the ‘politics of kindness’ (and therefore empathy skills) only the domain of female leaders? Research suggests that both men and women demonstrate higher levels of empathy when it’s contextualised as an important skill to have. The same research shows that women on average may work harder to demonstrate empathy than men, but evidence that women are biologically hardwired to be more empathetic than men is weak. 

To cultivate empathetic leaders, the solution may therefore be twofold: business leaders can promote women and people who demonstrate stereotypically feminine traits like empathy and cooperation into boardroom roles. Secondly, they can also motivate men to become more empathetic and cooperative leaders.

Removing barriers to leadership for women

As we learned in conversation with Indeed CMO Jessica Jensen, Lena Waithe, Reshma Saujani and Jen Welter, superficial answers to removing barriers for women – such as ‘leaning in’ – aren’t enough, and that leaders should be ‘100% authentic’ and work hard to connect with their employees on a genuine level, understanding the specific boundaries that they face in the way of success. According to lawyer, activist, and politician Reshma Saujani, workplaces are ‘built for white men [who] had a stay-at-home partner’. 

In our guide to women in leadership, we explain that developing future-looking talent acquisition strategies can also help to create a sustainable pipeline for diverse leaders – who may be able to bring in a greater range of soft skills beneficial to more empathetic leadership. However, employers can do well to avoid what is known as the ‘glass cliff phenomenon’, where leaders are hired in precarious yet prestigious leadership roles. 

Empathetic leadership can boost men’s mental health at work

Additionally, empathy may be a great boon to leaders looking to unlock conversation around men’s mental health at work, allowing them to support male staff. Forbes explains that moving from stigma to support for men’s mental health in the workplace – as well as checking in with workers at all levels – can help men to express their concerns and stressors at work. With men traditionally expected to remain stoic and not express their emotions, empathetic leadership can help counteract what can be harmful expectations.

Unpacking the issue of employee dissatisfaction with empathy

The solution to reducing employee dissatisfaction with management is complex, but developing empathetic leadership skills is arguably a useful tool to discovering their concerns as well as solutions to them. While empathy has traditionally been seen as a female trait – and not one popular in leadership roles – developing this skill can help leaders to boost job satisfaction and innovation in the workplace. Training and using empathy skills can also help leaders to tap into the concerns of male staff, encouraging them to express concerns and cope better with workplace stressors.