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Leading with Empathy: The Critical Role of Prioritizing Mental Health

Many times in leadership, I’ve been looking various degrees of stress and mental health challenges in the eyes, sometimes even in the mirror. I’ve seen everything from terminations, cancer diagnoses, the loss of loved ones, military PTSD, to domestic violence, post-9/11, divorce, gun violence, grand mal seizures, and alcohol abuse. And that’s just my staff and colleagues, never mind the worries of my customers and clients.

As a coach, I’ve told leaders on many occasions about how in my previous career, I made certain I was not remembered as the manager who cried all the time. In fact, I was only ever “caught openly crying at work 3.5 times: when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, when I made the difficult decision to leave my beloved call center squad to change departments, and when my nana passed away.” People often wonder about the “half” time I allowed myself to show emotion in the form of tears, and I explain that happened as they took my coworker by ambulance after suffering a grand mal seizure where he dislocated both shoulders. Even if he annoyed me sometimes, I was relieved to know he was okay for the sake of his wife and kids, and I had a surge of “crisis-averted” tears for a second.

It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I realized how much my corporate career, and a few life experiences, had given rise to my hardening against normal feelings of sadness, grief, despair, loneliness, hurt, threat, or frustration. I allowed myself to become emotionally distant which often conflicted with my values of kindness and empathy. But this callusing of the mind was lauded as resiliency in leadership and rewarded often with roles that dealt with what? More people. People with feelings at that.

We are humans who work for a living. Even when we think we can fake the funk, we cannot artificialize emotional intelligence. So many work cultures have been founded on “leave your feelings at home”. That’s not real. It’s also not sustainable. However, reinforcing this belief system has helped some people self-regulate more appropriately, while others have been silenced, suppressed, and sidelined.

In the high-stakes world of business where productivity and revenue generation reign supreme, where bottom lines and targets often dominate discussions, the significance of mental health can sometimes be overlooked. Yet, the reality is stark: ignoring mental well-being not only affects individual performance but can also ripple through entire organizations, impacting productivity, morale, and ultimately, the bottom line.

Statistics Shedding Light on Mental Health Prioritization:

• Economic Impact:

o The World Health Organization estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion per year in lost productivity.

o Deloitte's research suggests that for every dollar invested in mental health interventions, there is a return of $4 in improved health and productivity.

• Employee Well-being:

o Gallup's study indicates that employees who feel their organization cares about their well-being are 20% more likely to be engaged at work.

o According to the American Psychological Association, nearly half of employees would leave their current job for an organization that prioritizes mental health.

• Leadership Effectiveness:

o Mind Share Partners' survey found that 60% of employees have never discussed their mental health with their managers, illustrating a communication gap.

o Harvard Business Review asserts that leaders who prioritize their mental health are better equipped to lead effectively and inspire resilience in their teams.

We need to begin or continue to humanize the human resources at work within our organizations. Having an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) is a wonderful resource to have, but only if your company culture is one founded on trust and integrity, otherwise employees may be reluctant to use it out of fear of negative stigma and confidentiality. (According to a survey conducted in 2020 by The Mental Health Foundation, 40% of people fear that their boss finding out about a mental health problem could jeopardize their career—other studies suggest figures between 30% and 50%.)

What else can we do? Keep reading.

Actions for Leaders to Prioritize Mental Health:

Normalize Conversations: Lead by example and foster an environment where discussions about mental health are welcomed and destigmatized. Share personal anecdotes or stories to encourage openness and vulnerability. This doesn’t mean lay your soul bare; think of how you can share these stories from a third-person perspective.

Provide Resources: Ensure access to mental health resources such as counseling services and employee assistance programs. Make these resources readily available and confidential to encourage utilization. Remember to communicate the accessibility and confidentiality of these resources clearly, early, and often.

Promote Balanced Boundaries: Encourage a healthy work-life balance by setting boundaries and advocating for regular breaks. Avoid sending work-related emails during non-working hours to respect personal time. If you are the leader who sends emails while you are on vacation in the Caribbean, think of the example you are setting and whether it aligns with your commitments to mental health.

Sponsor Professional Development Coaching: Internal coaching often has an ulterior motive—be productive. Having support from third-party coaches can help to remove the bias that comes with internal staff. Coaching is action-oriented, addressing various life challenges, from stress management to healthy routines and effective communication. Plus, it focuses on the present and future, helping individuals set and achieve their goals, rather than rehashing the past.

Invest in Training: Equip leaders and employees with the tools and training needed to support mental health in the workplace. Offer workshops on emotional intelligence, stress management, and trauma-informed practices to build empathy and resilience.

Imagine a leader who, in the midst of a challenging project deadline, notices a team member's increased anxiety and stress levels. Instead of brushing it aside, this leader takes the time to sit down with the team member, listen empathetically to their concerns, and offer support. By acknowledging the importance of mental well-being and demonstrating genuine care for their team, this leader not only fosters trust and loyalty but also boosts team morale and productivity. The return on the investment of 5 to 10 minutes can prove more valuable than a 60-minute Performance Improvement Plan meeting.

Prioritizing mental health in leadership isn't just a moral imperative – it's a strategic necessity. By embracing emotional intelligence, trauma-informed practices, and proactive measures to support mental well-being, leaders can create a workplace culture that thrives on empathy, resilience, and genuine care for each individual's mental health. It's time for leaders to lead with empathy and prioritize the well-being of their most valuable asset – their people.

Mental health is a priority at my job.

  • Facts!

  • False.


For more information on how to retain Danielle Adams-Wiltshire as a coach in your coaching pool, please message here. Looking to lead differently through stress? Try an Energy Leadership Index assessment. Thinking about how a leadership coach can help you through the struggle? Schedule some time.


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