In a recent YouTube clip titled ‘How Gen Z deal with stress’, American leadership expert Simon Sinek said he’s noticed a new phenomenon in many offices. Individuals, especially young people, are finding the one or two empaths on their team and going to them with all their problems. It’s not just traditional work complaints, like “I hate my job” Sinek explained.
Rather, they’re bringing all their personal problems to work – from “what am I going to do with my life?” to “my girlfriend’s not working out” – and foisting them on those one or two colleagues who are good listeners and more empathetic. The empaths become exhausted from taking on others’ stress. So they quit. At Serendis, our clients also feel that many of their Gen Z colleagues may be expecting too much of their people managers. “Are we meant to be their life coach as well?” some clients have asked us.
This trend of younger workers expecting more from their managers is taking place against the backdrop of The Great Resignation, where retaining talent is key. The emphasis on talent retention means people managers feel they have to be sensitive to their team members’ needs. And they do – but not at all costs. The question, then, is this: how can organisations retain talent, while also supporting managers to recognise when team members are asking too much of them?
The changing nature of work
The function of work used to be to earn a living, and people got their sense of community from religion, neighbours and extended family. These days, however, people expect the office to provide their sense of purpose, social life and connection to others. At the same time, many of us – particularly young people – are struggling with the chaos and uncertainty of today’s world, and it’s affecting how we show up to work.
Sinek says the younger generation is less equipped to deal with stress than previous generations; that they’re so intimidated by confrontation that they’d rather quit their jobs than ask for a raise! There are numerous reasons for this, including the internet, social media and parenting habits. But we’re not here to shame or criticise Gen Z. Instead, we want to highlight the trend, make clear what an empath is, and help organisations adapt.
A word on empaths
Some people really are more sensitive and attuned than others. According to Dr Elaine Aron, author of ‘The Highly Sensitive Person’ (HSP), 15-20 per cent of the population are HSPs, with nervous systems that are biologically different. Of those HSPs, a smaller percentage are also empaths, who are even more sensitive.
In ‘The Empath’s Survival Guide’, Dr Judith Orloff writes that empaths not only feel, but absorb, the positive and negative energies around them. They don’t have the same filters that others do to block out stimulation. This explains why they tend to burn out more easily than others. (Empaths are so sensitive, Orloff writes, “that it’s like holding something in a hand that has 50 fingers instead of five.”)
Understanding the interaction between Gen Z’s needs, and the way empaths absorb other people’s emotions, means it’s not enough to say that people managers just have to do better. Rather, organisations need to equip and support people managers to learn new capabilities, so they can retain younger staff amid this shifting workplace culture.
How can organisations help people managers respond?
Today’s people managers need to shift their mindset and focus on developing and growing their people’s capabilities rather than simply managing performance. They need to become coaches. Here are two simple tools organisations can use to support their people managers in this new environment:
1. Equip your people managers to schedule regular and impactful career conversations with each of their team members. Conversations should explore the career path your organisation can offer, while also being clear about the organisation’s expectations in return. The following three topics should be discussed at least once a month, and ideally, once a fortnight:
a) Regular feedback: where did the team member do well, what did they achieve that was valuable to the team and the organisation, what didn’t they deliver? (This provides validation and a sense of feeling valued which Gen Z need more explicitly.)
b) The next growth area: where will they grow next? What skills do they need to focus on to develop? What will success look like for them in the next six months? (This creates clarity around what the person needs to demonstrate to progress to the next stage in their career.)
c) The future: what is their long-term career path in the organisation? How might they get there? (This is often challenging for people managers who see this discussion as premature, but this sense of clarity is important to younger workers.)
2. Equip your people managers so they are comfortable setting clear boundaries. People managers need to be able to distinguish between ‘emotional sharing’ of work-related matters, and oversharing of personal issues. Organisations should encourage team members to bring their whole self, including their emotions, to work. But managers should also discuss the concept of emotional professionalism with their team. How can the two be differentiated?
Here’s a useful rule: Is the topic, the context or the emotion shared something the people manager has faced in their own career or can relate to professionally? If yes, then the topic is appropriate for a conversation between manager and team member, even if it’s something the manager would never have brought up with their own manager.
If not, or if the topic makes a manager feel uncomfortable, then they should make it clear this is not the right forum for this conversation. We suggest managers respond according to the gravity of the information being shared, such as: Yes, I understand this is challenging for you and I suggest you make sure to reach out to trusted friends or family for support, OR I’m not the best person to help with this, but I’d like you to contact our employee support services. I’ll find the number and share it with you.
At Serendis, we’ve observed that people leaders, team members and empaths are more likely to be dragged into difficult conversations at work if young talent feel they don’t have frequent, focused, career discussions and career-related feedback from their managers. In other words, leaders’ discipline to regularly cover the topics in point (1) above will help mitigate the ‘oversharing’ that people managers are currently perceiving and finding challenging.
As we move into 2023, expect to hear a lot more about Gen Z bringing their personal problems to work, and about empaths in your organisation feeling burnt out. As Simon Sinek says, “It’s not going to settle for a little bit. It’s going to be a very bumpy road for the next few years.” Organisations will do well to prepare their people managers and buckle up for the ride.