Empathy at the workplace: why startups need to sit up and take notice


Large corporations often have employee assistance programmes to guide, support, provide back up, and sometimes even counsel employees through personal crises. Startups, however, are a different ballgame. With the strictly need-based hiring, dynamic processes, and sheer art of hustle being their core strengths, many startups inadvertently overlook an essential component of building human workplaces – a plan for a personal crisis.

But at the end of the day, startup employees are as human and with as many commitments and personal responsibilities outside work as those of large corporations. So what long-term policies and immediate action can startup HR professionals employ to ensure appropriate support to an employee facing a personal crisis like the loss of a loved one, grief, health, and/or injury without letting it come in the way of business as usual?

It all starts with compassion

Your employees are adults. Chances are that they already know how to deal with the crisis, and all they need from the employer is a little understanding and some compassion. After all, it is the HR’s job to bring the human into human resources, because there are times in everyone’s lives when something other than work takes precedence. When you hear of an employee’s personal crisis, instead of checking if they can work through the crisis, offer them a day off or if they would like to leave early. Basically, let them know that work can wait for a bit.

Offer help that makes sense

Different situations demand different kinds of support, but the HR team must first be willing to offer it and do what it takes. Geriatric care or long-term illness? A revised office schedule with one work-from-home day in a week can help. Perhaps you can get the employee a little more help on the team from an intern or freelancer so they can share their workload. Death in the family? Offer short-term backup from someone who knows enough to pick up where your employee left off. It is simply a matter of team spirit and is reflective of a healthy culture.

Don’t expect a standard response to personal crises

Unburden your colleagues from the responsibility of being “as good as everyone else” during a crisis. If you don’t have written policies in place, it is important for HR to remember that different people deal with personal crises differently. In the event of a crisis, some employees may want to continue working to take their mind off things. Others might need a day or two off to fulfil their commitments and obligations or to simply clear their heads before they return to work. Neither is better than the other – they just have different ways of dealing with the crisis. Don’t penalize one or reward the other.

Offer some flexibility

To reiterate, your employees are adults and usually know their professional commitments and timelines. Sometimes during a crisis, all they need is a little flexibility. Your organisation may not have a documented work-from-home or flexi-timing option. But if an employee asks for it during a crisis so that he/she can meet both personal and professional needs, don’t shy away from it.

Check in on them

Employee assistance during a personal crisis starts and ends with compassion. It is not a business need, but a human one. As the HR as well as a teammate, don’t forget to check in on your employee’s well being and mental health in the light of a crisis. It indicates that you care enough.

Good employee crisis response is all about being human. Sure, there is a business to run, but a day or two away will not be the end of the world. If there is a chance it might be, there is always back up and temporary assistance. All startup businesses, and their managers and HR, really need in such times is good intentions. The rest will take care of itself.


Updates from around the world