Increasing empathy within the corporate sector will boost the wellbeing of minority groups in the workplace, something made possible by revolutionary virtual reality (VR) products such as Helsa's ƎMpathy VR.
By Elli Fowler • 1st December 2021
Image by Helsa
Mental Health Research Analyst
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an overhaul in many different ways and spheres, most significantly perhaps with the culture of the corporate world. In the spring of 2021, it was found that 43% of UK adults in employment were working from home , a far cry from the office focused culture we knew before. This has occurred alongside several other trends of change, including more women in the workforce, a more flexible working culture, increased diversity and accessibility within companies, and fortunately, increased focus on employee wellbeing and mental health . It seems that when the world stops turning, priorities change. It is in the interest of the vast majority of people that these changes remain, even as the rest of the world returns to relative normality. The key to this is empathy.
Empathy is an emotive trademark of humanity. It is generally defined as the ability to share the emotional state of another person, being able to perceive someone else's view of the world, and possessing the desire to help other people in distress . Though we can distinguish these components of empathy, for the majority of people, the experience will be intrinsically entwined. Different people will also experience different levels of empathy, and it should not necessarily be conflated with being a kind, thoughtful person, something that is possible without experiencing empathy. That said, sociologically speaking, empathy has been an important tool in the development of human social systems, facilitating the building of relationships and large group living. Empathy is consistently linked to the occurrence of prosocial behaviour and overall wellbeing, and generally is perceived as a thoroughly positive human trait.
Unfortunately it appears that empathy is on the decline. A study conducted over 40 years between 1979 and 2009 on cohorts of American college students found that measures of empathetic concern dropped by almost half (48%) over this time period . Possibly even more concerning is that a significant proportion of this decline has occurred since the turn of the millennium. There is no consensus on why this may be occurring but there are a number of theories. One of such theories suggests that the increased use of technology may well be somewhat responsible. Whilst online relationships can be highly empathetic in nature, one study found that on average the degree of empathy in an online relationship is 6 times less than in a face to face dynamic . Whilst a decline in empathy may not seem to be a significant issue in the face of modern times, research suggests that decreasing empathy can lead to increasing feelings of hostility and anger which in turn has the potential to destabilise societal functioning .
It is therefore of significant benefit to embrace empathy training tools within corporate strategies. It may be perceived as pandering to those who simply “aren’t cut out for the job” or who just need a little bit of “tough love”, but this could not be further from the truth. In fact, consciously introducing increased empathy into the workplace provides benefits on both personal and economic levels, demonstrated by increased desire within corporate spheres for bosses with empathetic leadership styles. The potential benefits are numerous, including increased productivity, the facilitation of collaboration, boosting organisational growth by attracting the brightest and best, and unlocking the potential brought by a diverse workforce . The last of these benefits should be of particular importance as we seek increasingly progressive workplaces. Diverse, representative companies are shown to outperform homogeneous ones consistently, across a range of economic measures . However, in order to achieve this, workplaces must be somewhere that ethnic, sexual and gender minorities feel comfortable working.
It is these groups that will benefit the most on a personal level from increased empathy in the workplace. Increased empathetic attitudes towards minorities are consistently demonstrated to improve wellbeing, decrease experiences of minority stress and promote healthier, more accessible working environments . In order to achieve this, it is important to tackle unconscious biases; biases people may hold towards certain groups, causing them to treat them differently, even though they may not be consciously aware of them. One way to address this issue is to actively instruct empathy, i.e. encourage individuals to put themselves in the shoes of another individual to better understand how their actions may impact them. Such a technique was used in tackling racial biases, where participants were played a series of clips demonstrating racial disparity, and were asked to imagine what it would feel like to be discriminated against due to the colour of their skin. The study found that the exercise was remarkably effective in decreasing the unconscious racial biases held by people, whilst allowing them to remain aware and sensitive to racial disparity . This is certainly an effective approach, which could be used to tackle biases that exist with regard to a range of minority groups. However, whilst technology may be the root of some of our aforementioned problems, it may also be part of the solution. I am referring to the powerful potential of virtual reality (VR) technology to improve the lives of minorities and increase empathy.
In recent years, we as a society have become increasingly accustomed to VR technology, predominantly within the context of immersive gaming experiences. It does have further uses however. It has been used with positive results for tackling issues such as phobias , anxiety, and experiences of pain , thus showing how it can be used to influence an individual’s mental state. VR technology has also been demonstrated to be extremely effective in eliciting increased engagement and empathy with a stranger's emotions . A study that focused on colour blindness found that people demonstrated much higher empathy for colour blind people when they had experienced a VR simulation of colour blindness as compared to a control group who just had to imagine the experience . VR technology therefore has immense potential as a form of training in informing people with regards to the lived experiences of others.
Empathy building tools should aim to tackle unconscious bias and encourage people to consider the lived experiences of people from minority groups
There is clearly significant potential for VR technology to revolutionise the way we train empathy, but why is this so important in a corporate setting? Incorporating active empathy training into the workplace has three major benefits. The first is increased productivity. In simple terms, humans work harder when they can actively see how their work and actions impact the lives of others, as demonstrated by one study that showed that radiographers performed more meticulous analysis of scan images when provided with a photo of the patient . They also reported feeling more empathy for the patient and feeling increased motivation for engagement with the task. The corporate world can have a tendency to become incredibly machine-like, but by harnessing the very core of human nature, productivity can be maximised. The second major benefit is increased collaboration. Google’s Aristotle project sought to determine what produced the best teamwork, and they found that it was empathy . The better an individual is able to read the emotional states of others, the more efficiently conflict is able to be bypassed, and end results achieved. The final major benefit to this type of trained empathy concerns the ability to both attract and maintain a diverse, representative workforce. In economic terms, it has been shown that the more representative of its consumer base a company is, the more successful that company is . It is therefore in the interest of all companies to utilise such a workforce. Empathy training within corporate spaces is therefore increasingly necessary for success. In particular, empathy building tools should aim to tackle unconscious bias and encourage people to consider the lived experiences of people from minority groups. Helsa is currently developing such a VR product, suitably named ƎMpathy VR, set to revolutionise empathy building in corporate settings, as well as healthcare and education.
The evidence presented shows that in order to increase empathy, and in turn, emotional intelligence, the most effective strategy is to allow them to directly experience the discrimination that minority groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community, face in their every day lives. It is exactly this that our product, ƎMpathy VR, is designed to do. Based on authentic experiences of stigma and discrimination, the VR stories have been created to activate the brain’s empathetic networks, promoting both an emotional and motivational response to the simulation. Not only will this entail the user being able to experience the story, but also to engage in activities within the VR experience that involve the utilisation of resilience resources with the aim of de-escalating stress responses.
Our users will have a unique opportunity to embody and engage with universal experiences of discrimination and stigma, based authentically on the day to day lives of minority people.
VR technology is being increasingly embraced across the education, healthcare and corporate sectors, but as an industry, it is still very much in its infancy. It is expected to grow significantly over the next few years, with estimates predicting a market size of $84.1 billion by 2028 . Alongside this growth, diversification is also expected, with its use in the development of interpersonal skills predicted to become commonplace in the not too distant future. ƎMpathy VR by Helsa holds a unique, innovative position within this market. We are the first company to combine VR technology and established psychological frameworks with the initiative to increase empathy and emotional intelligence. Our users will have a unique opportunity to embody and engage with universal experiences of discrimination and stigma, based authentically on the day to day lives of minority people. A training tool such as ƎMpathy VR will be transformative for any company seeking to create a more inclusive and empathetic workplace environment. Empathy is the key to creating representative and successful companies in the modern corporate sphere, but it cannot succeed without ƎMpathy VR.
ƎMpathy VR will be launched in late spring 2022. If you are interested in exploring how it can be utilised in your organisation, contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.