Navigating the Intersection of Work and Mental Health

Working Better and Stressing Less

Ideas on work and mental health

Empathic management: Why you should care

In my life as a consultant, I work mostly with engineers and executives. I can sense the eyerolls when I mention concepts like anxiety, mindfulness, feelings, worry, and values. I know what they're thinking: It's work. Pull yourself together. Act professionally. Leave your feelings and personal life at the door. Do your job. If only it were that easy. 

People thrive and perform when they are stimulated with just enough stress. Too little and they're bored. Too much and they're distressed and distracted. Whether leaders like it or not, one of their primary goals is to make sure that team members stay in that "high performing zone" by giving them just enough of the right type of work to keep them interested and stimulated. Team members need projects that push their limits just a little bit so that they need to grow but not so much that they give up, defeated. 

Yerkes-Dodson Performance Stress Curve. Click for Link to article about the concept!

Yerkes-Dodson Performance Stress Curve. Click for Link to article about the concept!

What about that personal life stuff? Most individuals I work with on organizational improvement begin with the perspective that personal life should be segregated from professional life insofar as workers need to check their baggage at the door. That would be so nice for the organization, wouldn't it? Unfortunately, the Yerkes-Dodson curve, above, contains not just work stress but personal stresses as well. So yes, you should expect that your employees and team members can behave appropriately at work. But no, you cannot expect that their lives stay outside of the office. Especially, as we move away from gender segregated roles of who takes care of income production vs. household and family work, workers are going to bring home stress to work. They will need flexibility, empathy, and support in order to perform. Leaders do not want their team members spending time wondering if it's acceptable to show up 30 minutes later than a typical start time because of a doctor appointment. Stress like that distracts workers from giving the 7.5 hours they have left 100% of their effort.

Here are a few specific tips for being an empathic manager and keeping your team members in a high-performing emotional state: 

1. Give a reason for your policies. Review any policies you have that may detract from individual autonomy and ensure they are needed for your organization to perform. For example, if you don't allow jeans in the office, provide a rationale. For example, say "most of our clients are attorneys who wear suits every day and so our office staff matches their dress to make our clients feel comfortable." Don't say, "We dress professionally every day because we're professionals." 

2. Make it OK to ask for flexibility. No you can't ask about someone's personal life in an interview, but you can share stories of your own life to help them feel comfortable understanding the degree to which your organization can accommodate their work/family situation. I frequently say, "We do allow a fair amount of flexibility in schedules. I like my team to be in the office for core meetings so that we can all see each other face to face a few hours a week. However, I work from home on Fridays due to my kids' school schedule." Or "I'm sensitive to noise so when I need to get heads down work done, I often leave and do it from my home office. However, I'm always in for all of our team meetings. This seems to be working for us."

3. Work WITH individuals to solve performance problems. No one (with perhaps some very odd exceptions) wants to do a bad job. Show your team members what you need by sitting down with them and working through a task together. Share with them EXAMPLES of successful work of a similar nature. Remember that people learn in different ways. See the visual guide from Drupal, below. It doesn't matter how experienced the person is you just hired. This is the first time they've worked for YOU on this project. Show them what success is and they're much more likely to succeed.If you've shown them once and they're "not performing," show them again in a different style. Ask them how they learn.  

Physical/kinesthetic styles are often overlooked in the workplace but if you are trying to work with a fidgeter, try taking them for a walk when you explain a concept... see what happens!

Physical/kinesthetic styles are often overlooked in the workplace but if you are trying to work with a fidgeter, try taking them for a walk when you explain a concept... see what happens!

4. It's not the person, it's the fit. Sometimes, someone you thought would be great at the interview doesn't work out in real life on a project. It's not them. It's the fit between you, them, and the tasks at hand. At some point in your career, YOU have been that person who didn't fit. Maybe you weren't fired, but at some point, someone hasn't been thrilled with your performance. I won't offer advice on termination except to say that compassion, care, ethics, and empathy are probably at least as important to the process as doing the legalistic things the HR manual tells you to do. When you compassionately end your working relationship with your employee or employer, they will carry that positive impression forward to refer clients, other professionals, or opportunities your way. And you cannot argue that positive impressions don't impact your wallet. 

Katie Playfair