Cultivating a culture of empathy: Leadership's role in employees' mental health
Companies should set up a safe, supportive environment for employees to speak up, to help them realize its OK to not be OK
CHENNAI: Workplaces are excellent platforms for change. They employ millions of young professionals, train them, mold their minds and hearts, and work ethic, and shape them into concerned citizens and global leaders with empathy. Mental health, empathy, and indeed all health and well-being efforts are best when leaders drive them by personal example.
First and foremost, leaders need to be authentic. If they are affected by anxiety or mental health issues, they should come out and tell colleagues and team members about how they are dealing with it. It shows they are human and vulnerable, and helps people better understand them. If they do it, others will as well and this one step can do more to normalize and destigmatize mental health at work, than anything else.
Companies should set up a safe, supportive environment for employees to speak up, to help them realize its OK to not be OK ( I will never forget that campaign name at one company), and that they can bring their whole selves to work.
Appreciating that mental health is a matter of chemical imbalance, and that a neurodiversity spectrum exists in the workplace and must be embraced, will help a company and its leaders greatly advance. Companies can offer training for employees, people managers, and senior leaders, equipping them with skills to recognize signs of concern, and tools to support a colleague suffering from mental health issues.
I always look to how leaders react in unprecedented crises – and we need to look no further back than the COVID era. There was a massive shift to working from home, immediate lockdowns and incredible turmoil at home, at work, in hospitals as people, companies and countries grappled with the virus and its aftermath. Did leaders put themselves in the mindset of employees, understand where they are coming from, show courage, help them cope with the fear engulfing them, show them they truly care? That reaching out to individual team members especially in times of crisis, builds loyalty and marks the leader as special, as someone worth following.
While demanding productivity and results, leaders must show heart and empathy for the real life situations employees find themselves in. There is no one size fits all solution. If an employee is coping with her daughter’s cancer, giving her the time to deal with doctors and hospitals and tests and treatment, goes a long way to foster loyalty. At that moment work is far from her radar screen and acknowledging that is very important. And it is not just leaders but also peers who must show empathy. And that culture is set from the top.
It is encouraging to see hundreds of workplaces from the private and public sector in India visibly adhering to physical and mental health criteria, and utilizing resources from a variety of ecosystem players to genuinely advance employee health comprehensively. They are tracking and reporting on quantitative data and metrics, taking definite steps to improve the quality of their employee health programs, speaking at conferences to peers and advancing the dialogue on workplace health in the country. Most of the mental health initiatives are driven top-down and leaders actively participate in the activities. Resilience training, mindfulness, etc. are very popular among corporates.
I am pleased that companies are also implementing happiness surveys and even a Happiness Index and are with intent, taking steps to keep employees happy and engaged. More and more companies are using culturally validated questionnaires to screen employees for depression, anxiety, and stress during annual health exams. Employers are embracing technology and forming WhatsApp groups with large teams to check in on people and their emotional well-being. Some companies are using trained peer leaders to promote a culture of empathy throughout the company. Yet others provide internships for people when they are released from mental health institutions as a first step toward recovery and rehabilitation.
It is a positive sign that Indian companies are showing cutting-edge employee health and mental health practices on par with the best in the world and partnering with NGOs and knowledge partners to tackle physical and mental health among their employees. It is important for their bottom line, for making a collective public health impact, and for India’s future.
Dr. Nalini Saligram, Founder & CEO, Arogya World, Ashoka Fellow