An increasing number of leaders are realizing that a strong sense of empathy helps in tackling the mental health crisis at work, says Thom Dennis
With a change in priorities for many employees post-pandemic, and, according to Mind, one in four people experiencing a mental health problem each year in England, mental health is moving up the agenda – but workable solutions are still proving hard to come by. Increasingly, leaders are realizing that adopting empathy as an effective approach is helping to tackle the crisis at work. It is a growing request from businesses asking for leadership skills fit for today’s challenges.
People from the LGBTQ+ community are between two and three times more likely than heterosexual people to report having a mental health problem, and 23% of Black people will experience a common mental health problem in any given week. One in six workers experiences problems such as anxiety, low mood and stress at work. According to Gallup, anxiety has been increasing over the past decade – even before COVID-19. In their 2022 report, around 40% of respondents said they felt worried and 44% felt stressed on the day before being canvassed.
Mental health is intimately intertwined with heart, brain, immune system, digestive and sleep health. Without good mental health, we cannot work to the best of our ability, so addressing these issues is non-negotiable and we cannot bury our heads in the sand.
So what are the solutions? It is certainly clear that leaders need to apply a more focused emphasis on their people, in addition to achieving objectives, targets and profits, and this means it is less about resourcing and more about engagement, inclusivity and wellbeing. Increasing numbers of leaders are realizing that a strong sense of empathy is associated with strong leadership, and it helps in tackling the mental health crisis at work as well.
Is Empathy the Answer?
If empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another and place oneself in their shoes, then it is not a skill we are trained enough in. It is about deep listening – not necessarily giving solutions but hearing what someone is saying and acknowledging their situation. It enables psychological safety, from which resilience, innovation and creativity come. We need to be allowed to make mistakes and learn. We need to be given permission to talk and share different opinions and ideas.
By consistently practicing empathy, we can improve our ability to manage and respond to emotional experiences and encourage others to do the same. This means that we can become better equipped to manage stressful or emotionally challenging situations and have better tools to handle future problems, and we have a better chance of employees bringing the best version of themselves to work.
How Can Leaders Show Empathy to Improve Mental Health?
Leaders – talk to your people
In all of the best businesses I have worked with, the CEOs and other members of the C-suite go around and talk to their people. They check in with colleagues under pressure, including fellow executives because it can equally be lonely at the top. They are human-focused.
Community is now at the workplace for many
Many of us don’t belong to a strong local, religious or family community, so work may well be where we find our tribe. That is why understanding a sense of belonging as part of a team and being included is even more important than it was in past decades. A lack of belonging can be directly related to poor mental health.
The feminine versus masculine
Stereotypically, femininity is associated with being more caring and nurturing whilst masculinity is linked with ambition, acquisition and power. In modern times, breaking down these stereotypes has helped to promote everyone showing care and kindness. But leaders, whatever their gender, need to show their own nurturing side for real change and commitment so that everyone can thrive.
We don’t have to produce solutions for everything
The best leaders don’t preach or tell people what to do. They listen by giving permission to others to talk and then giving them the space to get it right. They lead rather than manage to maximise potential and enhance individual and team performance.
There is always a place for protocol too
Being proactive and developing toolkits and guidance, having Mental Health First Aiders, including in HR, and being clear about the company’s values and then living and breathing them can help people deal well with mental health issues – hopefully before they develop into bigger issues.
People want to feel part of something
Leaders need courage and willingness to say things as they are, to be truthful and transparent and not infantilise employees. You can’t belong if you don’t know what is going on. The few who don’t want to know the reality of a situation are those who suppress, leading again to poor health. Even if there are hard times ahead at work, coming together, feeling part of something and being motivated and inspired will carry teams through. Having a vision, even if we aren’t sure about what the future holds, leads to supporting one another, which in turn breeds team resilience.
Encourage being kind to ourselves
This means not burning the candle at both ends, sharing the burdens and not toxically comparing ourselves to everyone else. Many people have had enough of curveballs, loss, pandemics and job insecurity. It is now a time for businesses to learn to be sustainable and balanced.
Learn how to listen empathically
Listen to understand, not to reply. Be present when someone is speaking and allow space for silence. Ask open-ended questions, avoid giving unsolicited advice and reflect on what you’ve heard to make sure you received what was intended.
Recognising that our business is made up of individuals means understanding that what one person needs is rarely exactly what another seeks. Being individual-centric and not applying a one-size-fits-all solution is essential.
Deal well with people with difficult personal circumstances
We are not machines, and we have complex needs, problems and feelings. When we have a traumatic experience of any sort, whether that is losing someone, being threatened, or feeling fearful or isolated, it affects people in many ways. Resilience is a wonderful characteristic to have, but first we need to process trauma so it doesn’t become suppressed and lodged in our body – because ultimately, that will do us more damage, and we can be reactivated and triggered regularly.
As leaders, showing plasticity and curiosity, leading to empathy, is vital.