Mental Wellness and Empathy in the Workplace

As the stress from lockdowns and restrictions recedes, your employees are likely to use their newfound breathing room to assess the full extent of the damage living in a crisis has taken on their mental wellbeing—and how your organization responded during and after the crisis. During this delicate period of readjustment, empathy from employers will play a critical role in how employees bounce back.

In this post, we’ll discuss the importance of empathy when it comes to the mental wellbeing of employees and how HR can help, including:

The Impact of Empathy on Mental Health

Demonstrating empathy is therapeutic. In fact, patients with cancer who have empathetic healthcare providers experience “less stress, depression, and aggressiveness.” Empathy’s therapeutic benefits extend to wellbeing: when your employees are shown greater empathy, their wellbeing has a chance to improve.

Consider this hypothetical: one of your employees loses their spouse. Still grieving the loss, she returns to work after two weeks of bereavement leave to discover there are no flowers on her desk. No coworkers offer their condolences, and no manager takes her aside to express concern and support. Instead, this employee must bear both the weight of her loss and the disregard for her wellbeing demonstrated by those with whom she works.

It’s not hard to imagine how it would contribute to her feeling unappreciated or isolated from her coworkers. Such a lack of empathy and emotional connection could even make her feel like she’d be better off somewhere else.

Now, let’s imagine the opposite scenario where this employee returns to work to discover a workplace of love and concern—a desk with flowers and cards, consolation and warmth from her coworkers, and a manager who makes it clear they’re there to help in any way. In that kind of workplace, your employee would find solace and possibly healing as she navigated her return to work.

Why Empathy Matters for Your Success

But it’s not just a matter of hypotheticals. According to Businessolver’s State of Workplace Empathy study, 93 percent of employees reported they would stay with an empathetic employer, and 82 percent of employees would leave their position to work for a more empathetic organization.

The ability to empathize with others isn’t just a soft skill that checks a box: there is also research to suggest that, as an HR professional, your ability to lead depends on your empathy. According to one study, empathy is a “...crucial element which has application in interpersonal helping relationships where the healthy psychological growth of individuals is the goal.”

Considering the statistics surrounding the importance of empathy in work cultures, it’s clear there are many reasons why it’s good for employee wellbeing and good for business. A Forbes article from 2021 cited several categories where employees at empathetic organizations reported better results than those from apathetic organizations. These categories include:

87 percent of CEOs agree their company’s financial performance is tied to empathy. An empathetic workplace also leads to increased employee retention, a stronger ability to recruit top talent and greater employee satisfaction.

How HR professionals Can Lead with Empathy

As HR professionals, you already have a lot on your plate, but as you work with different teams and management levels in your organization, here are some ways you can model empathy and bake it into your initiatives.

  1. Listen actively. Pay close attention to the person speaking (don’t just think about what you’re going to say), and maintain eye contact. Give the person you’re listening to the space and freedom to feel safe to talk to you.

  2. Act with compassion. Acting with compassion means you look for ways to improve the physical, emotional, or mental pain of your employees.

    For example:
    - If someone is late to a meeting because they’re experiencing issues with something at home, knowing all the details of the situation may not be as helpful as simply showing patience.
    - If a deadline can be extended, push it back. The goal should be to understand how to help employees develop past their challenges and return to the level of performance the company expects.

  3. Zoom out. Beyond the pandemic, your employees may find themselves grappling with other issues playing out on the world’s stage. From fires to war to political unrest, it’s likely that larger societal issues are impacting your employees’ mental wellness. Demonstrating empathy means proactively acknowledging these issues and offering resources for your employees to tap into.

  4. Encourage engagement. Humans do best when they’re connected to one another in meaningful ways. One of the most devastating parts of the pandemic was forced separation, and even after the pandemic, many workplaces have struggled to develop connections among teams. The key to connection is face-to-face interaction in non-threatening environments.

    For example:
    - You can increase engagement by encouraging informal meetups with employees.
    - Set aside time for coffee chats.
    - If your team is remote or distributed, put a meeting on the calendar that’s devoted to just connecting as humans—the payoff is worth it.

Empathy Given, Empathy Received

Leaning on empathy first allows you to better prepare for the ups and downs in your employees’ lives—the pandemic may be waning, but the next crisis might be just around the corner. Empathy is the key to keeping employees’ trust as you navigate whatever may come your way. That can take the form of watching for burnout, providing plenty of channels for employees to voice concerns anonymously, or as we discussed, giving people opportunities to build closer relationships at work.

A final caution: understanding employee feelings is important, but internalizing all of them can shift the burnout to the HR professionals instead of resolving the issue. You don’t have to carry the emotional state of your workplace alone—everyone should have space and a receptive ear to talk about their challenges, including you.

As your organization invests in healthy empathy, you’ll have a healthier workforce, a stronger culture, and a better business. Your employees will feel safe coming to you with their problems and be more likely to stick around for the long-run. When employees feel understood and cared for by their company, they’re willing to work harder, take smarter risks, and feel more encouraged to help their colleagues succeed.