As work changes, some have started questioning humanity's role in the big picture.

According to the Worker Identity Research Collaboration (WIRC), a worker sentiment study spearheaded by Martha Bird, chief business anthropologist, ADP, workplaces that design with people, not just for people, will be the most successful in the long run. They will demonstrate empathy and awareness of what it's like to work and show concern for the people doing it.

But some workers believe that work's "empathetic" or "human" component has been overlooked, de-emphasized or mismanaged. From a workplace standpoint, they want to understand what harms as well as what elevates. Using interviews from a diverse group of workers, WIRC's "Humanity" territory describes five concepts informing these sentiments.

5 concepts shaping worker sentiment

  1. Systems awareness
  2. Moral burnout
  3. Disillusionment
  4. Hierarchy flattening
  5. Structuring empathy

1. Systems awareness

According to WIRC, some workers have started seeing organizations as systems, not just a set of arbitrary rules. They recognize their places within these systems and have questions about it.

"The individuals we spoke with shared what they describe as an increased self-awareness of the failings of political, social, economic and environmental institutions and systems," Bird says. "We listened to people as they questioned the 'rules' in which these larger systems operate. They questioned why some people benefit from these 'rules,' whereas the same rules chronically block others. We also identified a concentrated reassessment of what passes for authority."

Organizations are at the bottom of systems, Bird adds. Each has a unique sphere of influence, power and privilege, and many are hierarchical. While hierarchy's not automatically bad, increasingly, these arrangements are creating opportunities for workers to question pay, access, status, promotion, inclusion and what counts as value. But many don't know they're even participating in these systems, and for those who've had to start off from more challenging places within them, this lack of awareness can lead to anger and disillusionment.

What can leaders do?

In response, leaders can don their listening hats.

"Leaders should seek to become more informed through listening and self-reflection. No one has all the answers, but knowing what you don't know is an excellent place to start," Bird says. "From here, leaders can begin to think more critically and differently about the systems in which we participate."

2. Moral burnout

Conversations about burnout and how many have lost their sense of joy because of overwork and underappreciation, are common. But less frequently discussed is burnout resulting from engaging in tasks not aligned with what one believes to be right, proper or good. According to WIRC, some workers experience this moral burnout in the context of their employment. This feeling, the report asserts, is partly due to structural pressures forcing workers to act in ways that transgress their morals.

"For instance, when an employee is told, explicitly or not, to accept or embrace behavior they believe to be immoral or amoral. Health care providers and educators feel this particularly sharply when asked to prioritize efficiency over care," Bird says. "In less obvious ways, workers feel this when implicated in office rituals ill-aligned with their personal codes of conduct."

What can leaders do?

In response, leaders can strive, or keep striving, to set good examples and be positive role models.

"Leaders should seek to model the behaviors they wish to see in their organizations," Bird says. "It's not enough to talk about doing the right thing. The 'doing' is the true litmus test. If you allow people to behave badly, regardless of their standing and seniority, you signal that their behavior is okay."

3. Disillusionment

According to WIRC, some workers feel disillusioned by the reality that their hard work hasn't paid off and may never. There's a dissonance in knowing that excellent work, going the extra mile and being willing to take on new challenges don't always equal reward or recognition.

"Disillusionment had different origins and took different forms depending on who we spoke with," Bird says. "Some felt disadvantaged from the beginning because of socioeconomic background, ethnicity, access to advanced education or a combination of each. For others, it was about climbing 'the ladder,' only to find no seat at the table."

This disillusionment, Bird adds, can lead to a lack of trust and fuel collective reappraisal of what it means to be successful.

"It was obvious to those we spoke with that people have different opportunities depending on where they're from, what they look like, how much education they have and other factors," Bird says. "While meritocracy is a popular concept, especially as a rallying cry for working harder, it tends to overlook that simply 'pulling yourself up by the bootstraps' and 'working harder' don't happen on even or neutral ground."

What can leaders do?

In response, leaders can continually learn about people from different backgrounds, strive to create an inclusive workplace and prioritize equitable outcomes.

"Leaders who take the time to learn about other lived realities and how these impact individuals' lives and work trajectories will be in a far better position to critically evaluate policies and practices that serve the few rather than the many," Bird says.

4. Hierarchy flattening

According to WIRC, some workers feel more empowered to assert their value as individuals outside of traditional hierarchies. They believe these arrangements have become increasingly arbitrary and, in turn, have started questioning their importance and relevance.

"Given the political, environmental, health and social challenges of the last several years," Bird begins, "people have been motivated to think deeply on questions of a more existential nature, such as, 'What do I value most in life? What fulfills me as a person? How do I want to live my life?' Having witnessed loss at scale, whether loss of life, income, social freedom or political voice, the people we spoke with expressed a growing skepticism of the notion of 'certainty.'"

Forced to pause, some workers adopted a more critical stance toward power structures, such as hierarchies, including those around which many organizations have historically operated.

"A popular example of this critical evaluation is the essential worker, a low-wage employee many depended on for health, safety and convenience during the COVID-19 lockdowns, while more highly paid people stayed put," Bird says. "For a growing number, the irony of that isn't lost."

What can leaders do?

In response, leaders can look inward.

"Leaders should be asking themselves how they embody their own status and title," Bird says. "It's important to raise self-awareness of the benefits and practices associated with 'rank.' Is status a way to pass off work? Do you alienate others by setting yourself apart? Are you blocking greater opportunities for innovation by exercising a command-and-control approach? Do you acknowledge your privilege? Do you ask your team members how they feel about hierarchy?"

5. Structuring empathy

According to WIRC, empathy, which often lives rent-free in corporate communications, marketing materials, trainings and mission statements, is a hot topic, not necessarily because of its impact or effectiveness, but because of its usage in "lip service" and "tone-deaf" initiatives.

"Empathy is one of those cultural constructs that many agree is a good thing but without really knowing why. That's understandable, given empathy's conceptual fluidity. It's difficult to pin down, difficult to describe," Bird says. "But things get tricky when discussions about empathy become a proxy for 'doing' empathy. Like many things, it's not enough to say 'we're empathetic' without any action. Part of being empathetic is taking time to invite perspectives different from your own. Only by being open to new inputs can we grow and learn."

What can leaders do?

In response, leaders can strive to uphold the Golden Rule and let empathic behavior take the lead.

"With a commitment to better understand people's perspectives, leaders can begin to uncover more about themselves through the lens of others' experiences," Bird says. "They can ask themselves, 'How would I like to be treated under similar circumstances?' Then, they can do something about it, starting at the policy-setting level."

Your WIRC toolkit: 9 conversation starters for leaders

WIRC's findings can help leaders inform people management strategies and policy-setting. Use the following conversation starters to get the ball rolling:

Systems awareness

  1. What systems do we have, and what are they designed to do?
  2. Are our systems delivering the outcomes we want?
  3. Are there outcomes we want that lack the systems or incentives needed to achieve them?
  4. What do we measure to determine progress or success?
  5. Are our measurements based on what we want or what is easy to measure?
  6. Do our key performance indicators (KPIs) reflect what matters to the work, the business and the humans performing the work?

Moral burnout

  1. Do we evaluate whether we're doing the right thing as a required part of our decision making?
  2. Do we understand what could possibly go wrong and how that would affect people?
  3. Have we asked for diverse perspectives to see beyond our own worldview and identify issues and questions we might not have considered?
Get the rest of the conversation starters at the WIRC site.

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