World Mental Health Day took place earlier this month. Many came forward to share their personal struggles with mental health to raise awareness and reduce the stigma surrounding these issues. The pressures of the pandemic may have exacerbated some deep-seated problems among some of us, which has led us to place greater emphasis on mental health.
The 2021 Global WellBeing report by professional services firm, AON, revealed that mental health and working environment are ranked among the top three employee wellbeing issues globally. Employers are faced with high turnovers amidst “The Great Resignation”. Resignations in the tech industry are among the highest at a 4.5% increase from the previous year due to increased workloads and burnout induced by a demand surge from the pandemic.
As leaders, we cannot afford to ignore the impact of overall employee wellbeing as well as engagement on an organisation’s growth and stability. We must be invested in the welfare of our teams and how they perceive their future in the organisation.
Leaders need to create a culture that values wellbeing
A company’s culture is a deciding factor on whether a concerted strategy for employee wellbeing will succeed, and this is more often than not influenced by its senior leadership. The crucial step is to lean in.
Are you someone who leads from an ivory tower or from the frontlines? This fundamental question helps set the tone for how you will steer team dynamics. The challenges of remote working with dispersed teams have been a test of leadership. Frequency of project updates may have been reduced and managers are cautious to avoid coming across as micromanaging employees, unintentionally pushing them to the brink of exhaustion. In these circumstances, empathy needs to underscore every interaction.
Lean in and not away
One way for leaders to demonstrate empathy is to listen often. At times, it is necessary to listen more than you talk.
The intrinsic value of a team is that its members bring different perspectives to the table because each of us as individuals are prone to blind spots.
Exhibiting openness invites team members to contribute actively, and they would be more likely to do so when the head of the team is attentive to the various angles surrounding a challenge before arriving at a solution.
Maintaining regular interactions with your teams sends a signal that you value their work. At the same time, consistent support from the leadership team helps teams chart the path ahead or resolve obstacles smoothly. Gallup estimates that managers account for 70% or more of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units. This illustrates just how significant leaders are in keeping teams connected, starting by leaning in instead of away from problems. Knowing that their work is valued keeps teams engaged and encourages them to continue their efforts. This also provides clarity on how each role aligns with the whole company’s mission, for employees to strive towards that shared vision of success such as by being more innovative and taking the initiative more often.
That being said, leaders should take a measured approach and refrain from jumping right in every single time the team encounters an issue. Ultimately, the aim is to empower teams to take ownership of their work and to take pride in what they have accomplished. Learning presents opportunities for teams to grow and achieve excellence in the long run.
Emphasise commitment in times of change
In times of change and uncertainty, getting in the trenches with the team to understand what they are going through reiterates your commitment to common goals. Being proactive by offering perspective and mentorship goes a long way in building trust, instead of being reactive after trouble arises. Employees who report high trust have an average capacity for change that is 2.6 times greater than those with low trust.
Building trust naturally takes time, and tying in with the earlier point about engaging employees, being consistent about offering support plays a major role in reaching desired levels. Showing teams that you want to get to the finishing line together by dedicating your own time to the project imparts a greater sense of meaning to the task at hand. Having established a strong rapport, team members would be assured of whether their concerns would be heard and consequentially readily share information about issues at an early stage to be promptly addressed.
Lead by example
I always remember this piece of advice,
“Don’t be the only person in the meeting who walks away with no action items.”
Drive the momentum by walking the talk. A leader’s mindset and actions diffuses to the rest of the team. Giving a clear direction shapes expectations for employees.
In doing so, an old mentor of mine showed me that a leader should not ask the team to do something they would not do themselves. And that increased my respect for him even more.
Too many leaders today don’t believe in being hands on, perhaps because they might believe they are above it or don’t want to do the work. Roll up your sleeves and do the work to be more attuned to what the team is facing, which then puts you in a better position to offer advice when the situation calls for it. In the same vein, recognising employees’ achievements when they have done well is a morale booster.
The pandemic has permanently altered the way we work and the way we perceive workplaces, hopefully for the better. Where once financial growth was the main, if not the sole priority, leaders are coming to the realisation that other non-financial indicators like employee well-being and engagement can propel or impair an organisation’s growth trajectory, as well as its relationships with critical stakeholders. It is heartening to see that 48% of employees globally say that organisational culture has changed and improved during the course of the pandemic. The question to ask ourselves now is, “Can we make empathy and compassion commonplace in the “new normal”?
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Great article Mark and couldn’t agree more. For anyone looking for some insight on empathy in a practical way, I found this book by Prof George Kohlrieser a good read: https://www.imd.org/research-knowledge/books/care-to-dare/