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Thom Dennis

Serenity in Leadership Ltd

CEO

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Could empathy be a cure-all for the mental health pandemic?

Can being more empathic really make that much difference in managing mental health? Here are some tips on how to make it part of your workplace culture.
Two theatrical masks in a grey setting

According to Mind, one in four people experiences a mental health problem each year in England with the LGBTQ+ community and black people suffering to a greater extent from these issues. It is thought that one in six of us experience problems such as anxiety, low mood and stress at work.

Leaders need to step up

It is World Mental Health Day today, and with a change in priorities for many employees post-pandemic, mental health is increasingly a priority. As a result, leaders are progressively realising that adopting empathy is an effective approach to tackling the mental health crisis at work.

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

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 the issues is non-negotiable and we cannot bury our heads in the sand. So what are the solutions? It is clear that leaders need to apply a more focused emphasis on their people, in addition to achieving objectives, targets and profits. This means it is less about resourcing, and more about engagement, inclusivity and wellbeing.

Could empathy be the solution?

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 practising 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 more equipped to handle stressful or emotionally challenging situations and have better tools to handle future problems. We have a better chance of employees bringing their best version of themselves to work.

How can we use empathy to improve mental health?

Principals need to talk to their 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.

Workplace communities are increasingly important

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 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

Break down feminine vs masculine stereotypes

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.

Lead but trust your team can find the solutions

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.

Protocol is needed

Being proactive and developing toolkits and guidance, having Mental Health First Aiders including within HR, and being clear about the company’s values and then living and breathing them, can help deal well with mental health issues; hopefully, before they develop into bigger issues.

People want to be part of the change

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. Even if there are hard times ahead at work, coming together and feeling part of something and being motivated and inspired will carry teams through.

Actively encourage self-care

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. 

Listen deeply and 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 back on what you’ve heard to make sure you received what was intended.

We are not machines, and we have complex needs, problems and feelings

Be individual-centric

Recognising our business as made up of individuals means what one person needs is rarely exactly what another seeks. Being individual-centric and not applying a one size fits all solution is essential.
 

Support people with challenging personal circumstances

We are not machines, and we have complex needs, problems and feelings. 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. Leaders showing plasticity and curiosity leading to empathy is vital.

Interested in this topic? Women excel at emotional intelligence, or do they?

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