Leading with empathy when you're stressed, depressed, and burned out

For employers, trying to manage teams when they're struggling themselves is creating a wellbeing crisis

Leading with empathy when you're stressed, depressed, and burned out

With “National Bosses Day” right around the corner, employers across Canada are making an effort to look inwards and perfect their leadership style. And it seems that self-development can’t come soon enough. A recent report from Robert Half found that while 62% of Canadians are “generally” satisfied with their employer, almost one in ten are deeply unhappy. Remote workers seem to have a better relationship with their leader than their in-office counterparts – with the main areas of concern being the culture of overwork and a lack of healthy work-life balance. And for HR professionals, the situation is just as dire.

The importance of “stepping away”

Data from Paychex payroll software found that for 70% of HR leaders, the pandemic was the most challenging time of their careers. And while many professionals may have assumed the stress would dissipate with the COVID restrictions, they were sadly mistaken. A report from Gartner found that despite this culture of overwork, just 14% of companies have taken any steps to help ease their managers’ burdens. In fact, since the pandemic, HR leaders’ workloads have only continued to increase, building to a now near unmanageable level – so much so that HR managers are the most likely profession to take time off due to stress.

Read more: 'Work-life balance is king': Is flexibility underrated in the C-suite?

In the face of a mounting wellbeing crisis, employers have to not only protect their own mental health but also safeguard the entire organizations, something that feels impossible for many burned out managers. Speaking to HRD, Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post and passionate advocate for mental wellbeing, recalled a time when she had to convince a CHRO to take some time off. After the HR leader told Huffington she didn’t have the “luxury of taking a break”, the CEO offered her some much-needed advice.

“I told her that she should look at taking time for herself as an investment into her leadership – not a luxury. She saw results just by making that small investment in herself. Her [decision-making] was better. Her leadership, more empathetic and more creative, so there’s really a connection. It’s the culture shift that we need to be making.”

Communication as a self-preservation tool

In the fast-paced, tech-driven world, communication can be a double-edged sword. There’s no way employers could forgo tech – but equally, the nature of these tools means we rarely switch off. The remote working culture bred a miasma of being constantly “switched on”, with managers also unwilling or unable to set healthy work-life boundaries. In order to fight this toxic HR trend, it’s important to communicate in the right way – and always be mindful of that “OOO” email bounce.

“Whether you oversee fully remote, hybrid or fully in-person teams, an important tool for any manager is regular communication. Communicating openly enables managers to understand their employees’ needs and concerns”, says Evangeline Berube, VP at Robert Half Canada. “But understanding staff concerns is only one part of the equation. Perhaps more important to maintaining a positive dynamic with your team is finding solutions.”

In short, acknowledging that employees are juggling personal demands, regardless of their work location, requires empathy and flexibility. But, for already worn-out managers, that’s much easier said than done.

The business case for compassion

The current state of the Canadian economy, rising inflation and the crippling cost of living, is just adding more fuel to the post-pandemic fire. All the more reason to start upskilling your managers in the virtue of compassionate leadership – not only to protect mental health but to stem turnover. A report from Businessolver found that 93% of employees would be more likely to stay with an empathetic employer – and 82% would actually quit to find a more compassionate company culture.

Read more: Work-life balance at risk: One in five workers did not take annual leave in 2021

“People are just so burned out right now,” Brock Hart, CEO of Overlap Associates, tells HRD. “Working from home can lead to a culture of overtime, people have lost their jobs, they’re dealing with childcare – it’s a stressful time.

“Empathy can really help here too. Having compassion at work helps in these moments of crisis, we’re able to demonstrate that we recognize and acknowledge and care about people's life circumstances and situations. In short, human-centred design doesn't just apply to customers or clients, but also helps place that overall importance on employee wellbeing.”

Recently, HRD reported on the best way to practice some leadership self-care, with insights from Kathryn Torangeau, senior people & culture manager at Wave Financial. Delve into some downtime here.

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