5 ways to incorporate empathy into wellbeing strategies

Advice and top tips

5 ways to incorporate empathy into wellbeing strategies

Empathy and compassion may not sit high on the list of business priorities but the value of a positive environment that promotes inclusivity and compassion should not be underestimated.

Past research from the Association of Accounting Technicians suggests that employees value companionship and recognition in the workplace over big salaries.

Empathy has also been linked to increased employee productivity, loyalty and retention.

According to a Businessolver report, 77 per cent of employees said they’d work longer hours for an empathetic employer, with 60 per cent stating they would take a salary cut to work for an employer of similar ilk.

This makes for a compelling case why companies should strive to create an empathetic environment and cultivate a compassionate culture.

But the issue lies in how?

Establishing an empathetic workforce requires company-wide buy-in, and continued co-operation, and it exposes workers and leaders to a level of vulnerability they are not used to or particularly comfortable with.

One way to overcome this challenge is to incorporate empathy and compassion into the company’s wellbeing strategy, identifying them as key factors in the improvement of employee emotional health.

Here, we outline 5 ways companies can promote empathy through wellbeing.

Encourage managers to lead by example

Managers play a key role in establishing and sustaining empathetic environments, as they set the example for the rest of the workforce.

If managers are seen to be committed to their own wellbeing, from taking regular breaks to abiding by out of hours email policies, they are making it acceptable for others to behave in a similar way and are setting a benchmark for self-care amongst the workforce.

Similarly, managers who make clear that they are invested in the wellbeing of their workers, and that any issues or problems shared will be listened to and dealt with a sensitive manner, encourage a similar ‘copy-cat’ approach amongst colleagues.

Managers should be mindful that employees look to them to set the tone of how issues are treated in the work environment.

Those who champion wellbeing whilst putting unrealistic demands and pressures on the workforce will send a message to workers that the concern they express is not authentic – setting a precedent for how colleagues should treat each other’s struggles.

Companies can help managers by emphasising the people over profit message, offering advice on how managers can build meaningful and valuable relationships with workers and outline clearly defined and timely actions for them to take once issues have been raised.

Challenging attitudes

One of the big hurdles to empathy and understanding is stigma and prejudice.

If an environment is perceived as judgemental and critical, workers will be closed off and will fail to connect with one another.

Warranted or not, the fear of judgement affects workers in a number of areas, holding them back from making decisions that would have a positive impact on their wellbeing and breeding a culture of isolation and disengagement.

For example, in Willis Towers Watson’s recent Employee Wellbeing, Health and Benefits Barometer research, more than half (53 per cent) of workers said there was a sense of resentment towards colleagues who took breaks to smoke or vape.  Two thirds (64 per cent) of non-smokers and non-vapers don’t take regular breaks, with fear of being judged by colleagues and managers among the reasons why.

Despite this, 52 per cent of workers believe that taking regular breaks would improve their wellbeing.

The perceived resentment towards those who take breaks causes people to shy away from them, despite the health benefits.

Companies should look to foster understanding amongst the workforce.

In the case of breaks, companies could create dedicated areas for breaks and issue regular communications about the importance of breaks for mental endurance and emotional resilience.

Bringing such issues in the open and providing compassionate solutions will underline the company’s commitment to worker wellbeing, which will filter down through the ranks and challenge feelings of resentment.

Normalising mental health

Although there is clear evidence that mental health has a profound impact on workers, and despite efforts to change attitudes within organisations, scepticism persists.

According to previous Barometer research, one fifth (20%) of employees harbour scepticism towards people who take time off due to mental health issues and a similar proportion (19%) do not believe stress is a genuine mental health condition.

If employees feel they cannot be open about their state of mind with colleagues, they will hide the issue, become alienated, and opportunities for early intervention will be missed.

In order to tackle this stigma, and create a more understanding workforce, organisations must educate all employees and provide them with easy access to mental health information.

Creating a peer-orientated support network, such as trained mental health champions, can help, as it brings mental health into day-to-day discussions, normalising the issue of mental health amongst the wider workforce and ensuring support far extends beyond a tick-box, managerial exercise.

Increase visibility

In order to be more empathetic, one needs to consciously listen, communicate and observe.

This should be practiced by those responsible for worker wellbeing, such as HRs and managers, as otherwise, they may be perceived as just paying ‘lip-service’ to health and wellbeing.

If there is a perception that HR is an elusive department operating behind the scenes, and that managers are always squirreled away in offices segregated from employees, demonstrating interest in worker wellbeing will be difficult.

Being visible will help further underline a company’s commitment to worker wellbeing – which will, in turn, encourage a more understanding demeanour amongst the workforce.

HRs and managers can seek to create an ‘open-door’ policy and make themselves physically available whenever and wherever possible, be it one-to-ones, drop-in sessions with HR or managers working on the office floor.  This creates opportunities to look out for physical cues and observe behaviours that could indicate early signs of an issue and take a proactive approach to support.

As well as sending out communications around health-related advice, HRs can include information on how to get in touch should they have any issues or need additional support.  By offering access through various means, such as instant messaging, email, telephone, video conferencing or face-to-face, workers can get in touch in a way they feel comfortable with and the lines of communication between employer and employee become more open.

Again, displaying positive, caring behaviours will encourage copy-cat behaviour amongst the wider workforce and prompt more open discussions about prevalent issues, such as mental health.

The human touch

The workplace is fast-changing, thanks largely in part to the advancements in technology.

Technology now forms a significant part of many workers’ day and for physical health reasons, workers are often encouraged to takes breaks from screen time.

But this shift has also resulted in a sacrifice in human contact – which can impact on emotional wellbeing.

In fact, Willis Towers Watson’s Barometer research revealed that almost one third (30%) of UK workers claim that the lack of human interaction resulting from technology use increases their stress levels.

Human contact is also an essential component of building empathy.

In order to boost emotional wellbeing – and to encourage empathy and connection – companies could try and create spaces that encourage human interaction, away from the distraction of technology.

This could include tech-free comfortable break spaces, onsite group yoga or fitness classes, team-building exercises and buddy schemes.

Of course, encouraging understanding amongst colleagues and helping them to connect on a personal level is no easy feat – but with some conscious changes and by weaving empathy into efforts to improve wellbeing, companies can be set on a path to creating a more resilient, compassionate and empathetic working environment.