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Leading With Empathy: 4 Tips to Improve Workplace Mental Health

Leading with empathy is how emotionally intelligent leaders cultivate trust, rapport, and loyalty among their team members. Emotionally intelligent leaders practice empathy to better their company culture and employee experience. A high degree of empathy isn’t just a “nice thing to have.” Leading with empathy gives your organization a strategic advantage. 

Empathetic leaders create better workplaces for their team members and improve metrics tied to overall company performance. Catalyst recently surveyed employees with empathetic leaders and found that 76% were often or always engaged at work, and 61% were often or always innovative on the job. 

The current focus on empathetic leadership is no coincidence— employees are struggling across industries. According to a recent Pathways report, 9 in 10 employees are concerned with burnout. With employee mental health issues on the rise, leaders need new ways to improve workplace well-being and company culture. 

Change starts from the top down, and leading with empathy is a crucial component of employee experience and workplace mental health.  Leaders can impact their organizations significantly by improving their emotional intelligence and making empathy a core pillar of their leadership skills. In the long run, leading with empathy can improve workplace mental health by ensuring team members feel valued, heard, and understood. 

Here are actionable ways to build your emotional intelligence and become an empathetic leader. 


Tip #1 - Utilize Self-Awareness to Lead Authentically 

When people lack self-awareness, they’re unable to interpret others’ emotions or meet the needs of their team. Often, being self-aware is conflated with self-criticism or judgment. Instead, self-awareness is about recognizing your emotions and practicing empathy for yourself. This aspect of emotional intelligence hinges on self-acceptance and self-compassion. 

Your self-acceptance makes you more influential and trustworthy at work. Having self-awareness lets employees know they can bring their whole selves to work and let their guard down. When you’re compassionate with yourself, your team members are more likely to reach out when they need help. It can improve mental health by creating stronger trust, engagement, and inclusivity among your team members

What Can You Do? Create a Personal SWOT

You can gain insights and improve your self-awareness through personal Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (or hot-spots) analysis. Be honest with yourself, and build the list over time. 

  • Inventorying your strengths will help you lead through hard days and lean on those skills when you’re under pressure. 
  • Embracing weaknesses on your list can help you practice self-compassion and acceptance under challenging situations. 
  • Identify opportunities to use your strengths and weaknesses to your advantage when collaborating with your team members. Lean on your team members to help you in areas you struggle with the most. 
  • Become aware of personal threats (or hot spots) to self-regulate effectively. Knowing what stresses you out can allow you to be more compassionate and patient with yourself and others when stressors arise. 


Tip #2 - Hone Better Habits Through Self-Regulation 

Empathetic leaders successfully navigate difficult situations and communicate effectively by practicing self-regulation. Team members are more comfortable sharing their thoughts, feelings, and ideas at work when leaders stay emotionally grounded. Conversely, when leaders fail to manage their own emotions, employees won’t feel safe expressing themselves. 

Mindful leaders balance their emotions to create better connections with their people and improve workplace mental health. Additionally, when employees aren’t concerned with how leadership will react to their perspective, they are more engaged at work. Thus, practicing self-regulation is crucial for leading with empathy and creating a psychologically safe work environment.

What’s Next:  Identify “Hot Spots” and Cope Ahead

Identifying your “hot spots” or what pushes your buttons is the best way to improve your self-regulation skills. One way to do this is by identifying your “hot spots” to manage how they influence your behavior in the workplace.

  • Cope ahead by imagining what will influence you negatively before you enter a stressful situation. Then, decide how you’ll cope ahead to respond differently. For example, you can better self-regulate if you anticipate what pet peeves or behaviors might impact your behavior. 
  • Rehearsing a stressful scenario helps your words and body language flow more naturally. As body language accounts for a majority of communication, using a mirror to rehearse is especially helpful. 
  • Think about what feelings and body sensations come up during a negative interaction. Then, when those feelings come up, note them and practice counting to three or focusing on your breathing before responding. 
  • Rehearse a phrase that will let you pause the conversation if you’re struggling to self-regulate. (e.g., “How about we take a break for now and come back to this conversation later? I’d like to get my thoughts together before responding.”)


Tip #3 - Practice Empathetic Communication 

Leading with empathy depends on the ability to communicate effectively and actively listen to others. Emotionally intelligent leaders communicate empathetically to understand team members’ perspectives, how they solve problems, and what motivates and influences them. Empathetic communication involves more listening than talking and allows employees to feel heard, seen, and understood. 

When leadership utilizes empathetic communication,  team members feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings at work. Empathetic leaders utilize their communication skills to improve employee engagement and workplace mental health. When leaders practice empathetic communication, they give employees permission to express themselves and contribute more frequently. 

Next Steps: Practice Paraphrasing & Mirroring to Communicate with Empathy 

Active listening is a crucial part of empathetic communication that makes team members feel heard and understood. You can practice active listening by paraphrasing and mirroring techniques while communicating with employees. 

  • Instead of preparing your thoughts while others speak, listen with the intention of paraphrasing what they’re expressing. Then, when they’ve finished speaking, respond with “I’m hearing that you..” or “sounds like”... and summarize their points. This reply makes them feel heard and improves your ability to understand their perspective before offering your own.  
  • Mirroring techniques can be helpful when it comes to body language and empathetic communication. For example, if an employee is frantic when approaching you with a problem, remember that calm begets calm. So, instead of mirroring their stress levels, relax your body language and tone to encourage them to reflect your calm demeanor. Mirroring can be a powerful way to diffuse a situation and influence others’ emotions during your interaction.


Tip #4 - Define What Motivates You & Empower Others 

Living by your core values is a critical component of leading with empathy. If you have not clearly defined your core values and motivations, you may find yourself leading by the values of others. Team members can pick up on this lack of authenticity, making it harder for them to trust your leadership. Conversely, identifying your intrinsic motivation and demonstrating it in your leadership can empower others to do the same.

Differentiating between your intrinsic and extrinsic motivations can help you better understand your values and practice vulnerability with others. Knowing what motivates you can improve performance and inspire others, and encourages authenticity in the workplace. When team members feel as though they can be themselves, workplace mental health and employee engagement improves. 

Where Should You Start? Inventory Your Values & Daily Motivations

To lead authentically, determine what you value most through a personal inventory of accomplishments. Your list can help you understand your motivators and the core values you possess as a leader. You can also set daily motivators to demonstrate authentic leadership.

  • Make a list of your personal and professional accomplishments, as well as what goals you’re currently working on. This list can help you identify what motivated you in the past and how you are committed to growth. For example, learning a new language or training for a triathlon are goals that illustrate a commitment to personal betterment. 
  • Start each day with an intention that overlaps with your core values. Your daily intention can be a simple phrase like “be generous with my gratitude.” Sit with your intention, and assess ways to exemplify that intention in your leadership throughout the day. These small daily actions can make your core values more apparent to yourself and others. 


Committing to Empathetic Leadership and Workplace Mental Health

Leading with empathy takes practice. It’s a commitment to improving your emotional intelligence by being more intentional day-to-day. These tips can help you develop the necessary skills to be an empathetic leader who positively impacts workplace mental health.

Most leaders are embracing new ways to be empathetic and emotionally intelligent due to startling reports on employee mental health. Leading with empathy is an important step, but understanding what your team members are facing is also important.

Explore our report on workplace well-being and gain insights into the current state of employee mental health:

Read Our Report - The Mind at Work: A Report on Employee Mental Health

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