Why Empathy Is Vital for Supporting Employee Mental Health
Depending on your industry, where you are geographically and other factors, you may find yourself in the midst of a workplace transition. If you’re been working from home during the pandemic chances are your daily workplace schedule has changed significantly. Here in New Brunswick, many workers are now finding themselves transitioning back to their physical work environment with new challenges to undertake related to adherence to public health measures in the workplace (e.g. physical distancing, rigorous hand hygiene, wearing masks, etc.). In addition to the unpredictable circumstances the entire world is facing with regards to COVID-19, upheavals in workplace routines are presenting challenges for most. So how should leaders manage and mitigate mental health issues with all that’s going on? It starts with empathy.
When we’re able to understand a person’s perspective it puts us in a position to empathize rather than judge. Now more than ever, empathy is needed in our leaders. I recently saw a great quote floating around on social media (attributed to “anonymous”), acknowledging this very thing:
Just because we’re weathering the same storm doesn’t mean we’re in the same boat.
The quote was accompanied by a poignant image of a giant ship and a small, tattered dingy side by side, rolling through a tumultuous sea. A unique thing about the pandemic is that it’s affecting just about every single person on Planet Earth. Given the universality of the experience it’s easy to make assumptions that we know exactly what others are going through, that we understand how they feel because it’s probably the same way we’re feeling ourselves. From there, we sometimes cast judgment on the attitudes, behaviours and words of others based on those assumptions. We might find ourselves thinking, “My circumstances are more stressful than my co-worker Sally’s, yet she’s going on and on about having a hard time adjusting,” or “My neighbour Rick complains non-stop about how hard it is to work from home – he should just feel lucky to have job with so many others in our area having been laid off!” Strong leaders must remember that every person is different and we all experience different reactions to similar circumstances.
When we’re able to recognize a person’s behaviours as a reaction to stressful circumstances rather than a personality trait, there’s potential to change unhelpful behaviours in the workplace. If Angela’s negative attitude and comments to co-workers are taking their toll on office morale, my choices as Angela’s manager are to: 1) chalk it up to Angela being a negative person and either leave the issue unaddressed, or 2) attribute it to Angela’s reaction to stress, and offer support to help her manage that stress. Opening the door to that conversation might go something like this:
“Hey Angela, I’ve noticed you seem a little stressed lately. I heard you say Comment XYZ the other day and it seemed out of character for you because you’re usually so positive and upbeat. I know all that’s going on right now is tough so I want you to know that if you ever need to get anything off your chest my door is always open. We’ve also got a fantastic Employee Assistance Program. Here’s how to access it.”
This is obviously an abbreviated, scripted version of a discussion that should be tailored to several variables such as my rapport with Angela, and her verbal responses and body language as we communicate; but hopefully it’s helpful to hear a specific, “in a nutshell” example. A few key points this example illustrates are:
Keeping the approach casual and non-confrontational
Using specific, objective observations (“I heard you say Comment XYZ…”)
Showing genuine concerns and offering support rather than reprimanding or approaching it as a performance issue
Acknowledging the fact that life is stressful right now, implying that if Angela is feeling stressed it’s valid and understandable
Presenting Angela with an opportunity to discuss the issue if and when she wishes rather than putting her on the spot
Giving Angela specific information about the EAP so she’s able to access support from another source regardless of whether she feels comfortable discussing the issue with me
After a conversation like this it’s important that I touch base with Angela to follow up. The follow-up is key for several reasons, the obvious one being to give her a gentle reminder that I’m happy to chat if she needs me. The other message that comes across to Angela when I make a point to touch base with her again is that I don’t feel uncomfortable or awkward in the aftermath of our conversation. Talking about our mental health, especially in a workplace setting and even when it’s in relatively vague terms (e.g. “feeling a bit stressed out”) can feel scary. Angela might be feeling vulnerable, embarrassed or second-guessing whether she should have responded differently. By initiating a relaxed, informal follow-up I’m letting her know that this is something I’m totally comfortable discussing, and (hopefully) putting her at ease and making it more likely she’ll let me know if she needs support now or at any point down the line.
Check out this great little video built around one of the incomparable Dr. Brené Brown’s Ted Talks on empathy.
Stay safe and healthy everyone, and thanks for reading!
Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to frequent keynote speaking and corporate training on mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.