With much of the workforce still working from home, personal demands continue to spill into work demands and vice versa. Combined with raising children and maintaining relationships in a COVID world, it is easy to understand why self-reported mental health symptoms such as anxiety and depression have nearly doubled since before the pandemic.
These mounting pressures and the effects they have had on individuals’ mental health have pushed us into a period dubbed “The Great Resignation,” during which millions upon millions of Americans have voluntarily left their jobs between April 2021 and the present. This mass exodus has been attributed to a variety of reasons, but the main driver is burnout, a combination of work-related stress, mental health, exhaustion, and other factors plaguing Americans. According to a recent McKinsey & Co. report, 42% of U.S. women and 35% of U.S. men said they have felt burnt out often or almost always in 2021.
However, if employees felt genuinely valued, appreciated, heard, and understood by their employers, companies may not be experiencing these high levels of increased and costly turnover. A recent study by Catalyst uncovered that empathetic leadership is the solution. It also found that senior leader empathy encourages higher levels of retention. Furthermore, current research identifies empathy as the most important leadership skill. Yet many employees feel their employers fall short when it comes to genuine empathy. According to the “2021 State of Workplace Empathy” study, only 1 in 4 employees believed empathy in their organizations was “sufficient.”
So, how can companies support their employees’ mental health? It starts with empathy. Empathy in the workplace is caring about people as human beings and recognizing they have lives outside of work. Below are some simple ways to support employee mental health and cultivate a more empathetic work environment.
Encourage Open Communication and Reflective Listening in the Workplace
Encourage employees to communicate openly and honestly with company leaders and their colleagues, and put into practice a culture of reflective listening. Everyone has bad days, and encouraging employees to talk in constructive ways about their difficult days encourages more empathy in the workplace overall.
When employees open up, make sure you hear them accurately by repeating back to them what they said. In Safe Conversations, we call this method mirroring. It involves reflecting back what a person has just said to you and then asking the question “Did I get that?” or “Am I getting what you said?” This shows that you are actively listening and care about how they are feeling. Additionally, encouraging employees to talk about their mental health openly reinforces a positive culture around mental health in our society overall.
Prioritizing inclusion in the workplace is critical to a healthy work/life balance and a more empathetic workplace overall. Encourage employees to include and get to know each other on a personal level by asking each other about their life, their day, their family, etc. Another way to promote inclusion is for companies to host cultural events designed to foster connection and empathy between teams.
Implement Policies That Promote Better Work-life Balance
Consider more modern-day workplace policies like unlimited vacation days, flexible work hours, allowing employees to take leave for family events and emergencies, and encouraging team members to fully sign off when not working. Additionally, leaders should lead by example by prioritizing their own work/life balance and mental health. Ultimately, it should be up to employers and leaders to set their employees up for success when it comes to a healthy work/life balance.
Ensure Your Company’s Health Plan Supports Mental Health Care
Providing employees with a health plan that supports mental health care is a critical way to support employee mental health and encourage a culture of empathy. Providing this benefit to your employees acknowledges that the majority of people face mental health issues and that seeking help should always be encouraged and never judged.
Offer Flexibility and Understanding
People have lives outside of work, and the more you can do to recognize this as an employer, the better the outcome. Offer flexibility and understanding so people can do what they need to do, whether it be working at a later time during the evening so they can spend time with their children during the day or encouraging employees to schedule therapy sessions during traditional working hours. The more flexibility you can provide, the more empathetic and human-centric your workplace will be.
Harville Hendrix, PhD, and Helen LaKelly Hunt, PhD, are co-creators of Safe Conversations, a global communications and relationship program. The tools taught in the program can help anyone engage in conversations using empathy and compassion, leading to more connected human relationships and better overall mental health. For more information, visit safeconversations.com or the company’s social media: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram.