A New Era for Execs
Staff Management

Why Leading With Empathy Matters More Now

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Leaders can no longer only say they care about their employees’ wellness, they need to show it and model self-care behaviors. Two association experts share practical suggestions for managing employees in a time of heightened anxiety.

Inflation. The looming threat of recession. A divided political climate. Continuing pandemic concerns. These stressors, and more, are causing heightened anxiety among your employees, members, and volunteer leaders.

Since March 2020, rates of anxiety and depression have increased significantly, according to findings from the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey. In fact, the most recent APA survey “shows a battered American psyche, facing a barrage of external stressors that are mostly out of personal control.”

Rather than expect staff to simply push their anxieties aside during working hours, executives should embrace empathetic and compassionate strategies to successfully lead employees.

“Employees want their leaders to tell them the truth—be it about layoffs, return-to-office plans, or other uncertain company matters.” — Nabil El-Ghoroury, CAE, Executive Therapy & Consulting

Jump Into the Trenches

To identify which stressors are top-of-mind for association employees, “leaders should listen, and really hear the concerns of staff,” said Nabil El-Ghoroury, Ph.D., CAE, a psychologist and principal at Executive Therapy & Consulting.

Dig deep to identify what is driving individual employees’ anxiety. Are they concerned about the challenges of remote work with children at home? Are they worried about inflation and stretching their salaries to buy groceries? Understanding the root of anxiety can help leaders determine if and how they can help alleviate any of those concerns.

Leaders should be honest and transparent about work-related concerns. “Employees want their leaders to tell them the truth—be it about layoffs, return-to-office plans, or other uncertain company matters,” El-Ghoroury said. “If they ask about the budget, tell them the budget’s in good shape—if that’s the case,” he says. “If the budget is tight and it’s important to find ways to cut back, then tell your employees.”

One way leaders can alleviate some stress is by offering flexibility. According to El-Ghoroury, it makes a real difference if employees feel free to take a break during working hours to pick up kids from school or take them to practice, then make up time on their own terms.

He also suggests shortening meetings: Trim 30-minute meetings to 25 or 15 minutes. This will allow time for employees to “breathe” or take quick breaks between appointments.

At associations with busy annual meetings, executives should incorporate mental health day options into their leave policies. For example, El-Ghoroury suggests that leaders encourage staff to take leave immediately following the conference. Leaders can even model taking PTO at this time to demonstrate that leadership is serious about mental health days.

Offering staff activities that promote self-care and connection is another option. At the American Counseling Association (ACA), for example, a Workplace Committee has instituted several such initiatives, said CEO Shawn Boynes, FASAE, CAE. Over the past year, voluntary activities have included virtual coffee chats, virtual stretching sessions, virtual Tai Chi, and a virtual escape room.

Prioritize Mental Health

In addition to taking internal steps to provide a more empathetic environment, leaders should prioritize mental health as a critical aspect of employee health—and expand access to appropriate resources.

At a minimum, associations should contract to have employee-assistance programs available, which staff members can use to access short-term mental health services, says El-Ghoroury.

Boynes also suggests bringing in health professionals to share tips for mental wellness with all employees, or to share strategies with managers focusing on empathetic leadership and fostering a sense of connectedness. Another idea is to invite therapists to offer initial counseling sessions to employees for free or at a reduced price.

Alternatively, El-Ghoroury said associations can offer to reimburse employees for a percentage of their out-of-pocket mental health costs. This type of reimbursement would lower the barrier to enter care and boost loyalty among workers who appreciate an association’s investment in their well-being.

Normalize Wellness Journeys

As associations grapple with increasingly anxious employees, it’s vitally important that leaders demonstrate their commitment to mental healthcare. “It should be OK for staff to discuss their mental health with their boss,” said Boynes. “Leaders need to be trained to identify signs when people are in crisis.”

For example, virtual employees who never turn on their cameras, don’t respond promptly to communications, or are late with their work could be demonstrating signs of distress.

Finally, leaders should go the extra step and model behavior that could help employees manage their own anxiety. “Part of empathy is listening,” El-Ghoroury said, “but you also should be willing to share your own struggles—and explain how you’re dealing with it.”


Christine Umbrell is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Virginia.

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