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The most important leadership skill of 2022


empəTHē/noun/the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

How much time do you spend thinking about being more empathetic? Do you know the impact that a lack of empathy in the workplace has on employees’ mental health? What are some of the habits – and characteristics – of highly empathetic people? Is empathy even on your radar for 2022?

It needs to be, according to mental health experts. Empathy has always been important, but they say never more so than during these challenging, stressful times.  

The other COVID crisis

The survey software company Qualtrics did a global study on mental health with 2,000 working people in Australia, France, Germany, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK and the U.S.

In the aggregate, two out of five (41.6%) respondents said their mental health declined since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak. And the number of people who rated the state of their mental health in the lowest range (3 or under on a 10-point scale) has doubled since the outbreak began.

Further, the survey found moving to a new remote or alternative work arrangement impacted employees’ mental health significantly:

  • 44.4% of those who are now working from home say their mental health has declined.
  • Newly remote workers are 30% more likely than those still employed in any other setting (office, non-traditional office setting, self-employed, etc.) to say their mental health has declined.
  • Unemployed workers have the highest proportion of mental health declines (48.5%) followed by newly remote workers (44.4%), and then all other employed workers (34.1%).
  • For those who have worked from home for more than two weeks, they are 50% more likely to say that their mental health has declined due to “more chronic sadness” and “more fatigue.”

It’s also interesting to note that mental health is suffering at about the same number at all levels of organizations:

  • 44% of rank-and-file employees report decreased mental health
  • 40.5% of C-level employees report decreased mental health
  • 40.1% of managers’ report decreased mental health

So yeah, people are stressed for sure. Spend a couple of minutes pouring through your social media feeds, or even better, actually talking to people, and you can feel the stress and anxiety permeate the conversation.  

What are people most stressed about? The survey says, not surprisingly, contracting COVID, financial pressures, being stuck at home, loneliness/social isolation, fears about job security, and of course if they are parents, concern for their kids.


Enter empathy

You have no doubt deduced by now, especially given the title of this piece, that empathy can be a strong antidote to stress. Qualtrics’ data shows that actions on behalf of both a company or organization at large, as well as that of individual managers and supervisors, can improve mental health and mitigate some of the negative effects of stress.

How? First off, mental health and workplace exert says managers must care (and act) personally. They are an employees’ direct connection to the company, and their actions can either make mental health challenges better – or worse.

Some 38.2% of the survey respondents say their company has not even asked them how they are doing emotionally since the pandemic began, and that group is 38% more likely to say their mental health has declined.

Those who said their company has reached out stated that a direct call from their manager was the most effective way to check-in. More than half (57.7%) of workers surveyed said they are comfortable with their manager proactively asking them about their mental health, 41% want their managers to proactively ask them and nearly half say they feel comfortable bringing it up with their manager themselves.

However, fewer than half of those surveyed said their managers are attuned to their well-being, and only two out of five actually feel supported by managers. That group reports greater mental health challenges, is less productive, and is far more likely to quit.

Caring is just a start

Actually caring about – and being concerned for – colleagues and co-workers and those above and below you is a start certainly. Listening, communicating well, setting clear expectations, being transparent, and taking action to address the needs of employees also serve everyone well, and you don’t need to be a mental health expert to do any of those things.

Demonstrating empathy, awareness, and understanding takes diligence, deliberateness, time, and effort. And it certainly comes easier to some than others. We all know that! However, experts say we can all learn how to be more empathetic. And often it might start with something as simple and basic as listening.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson describes it as “putting in the work to learn and to listen with a heart wide open, to understand another’s experience well enough to know how they are feeling it, not as we imagine we would feel.”

I’m not a big believer necessarily in New Year’s resolutions, but being more empathetic sounds like a good one to me.

David Gee is a communications consultant (www.boat-pr.com), speaker and trainer (www.3secondselling.com) and the former editor-in-chief at Boating Industry.

Category: Leadership
Last Updated: January 21, 2022