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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Why society needs compassionate business leaders


Compassion should be at the heart of business – but leaders are falling short.

Humans are unpredictable, emotional, and often respond very differently to troubling circumstances. 

During the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, many of us have experienced periods of emotional tumult, including higher levels of fear, anxiety and stress. This has demonstrated a need for policies that recognise the effect negative mental health can have on workers. But what can leaders do to help employees experiencing mental health issues in the workplace?

“The cost of untreated mental health problems can have a huge impact on a country’s finances”

As an example, legislation around bereavement in the UK arguably falls short.

The Employment Rights Act 1996 obliges employers to give employees a “reasonable” number of days off unpaid, following the death of a family member, while a new Parental Bereavement bill allows two weeks of paid leave for both parents when they lose a child aged under 18. But what about stillbirth, miscarriage, the death of a close friend, or a 19-year-old child? 

By comparison, New Zealand has a more progressive and empathetic approach to mental health. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has shown the world how to proactively manage the COVID-19 crisis with kindness, which has had tangible outcomes on rates of infection and mortality.

She has also led the way in approving legislation that provides couples suffering a miscarriage or stillbirth three days of paid leave. 

The cost of negative mental health and what leaders can do

The cost of untreated mental health problems can have a huge impact on a country’s finances. While we have undoubtedly improved our awareness and understanding of its impact in the workplace, we are a long way from creating the sense of security that would allow employees to come forward and talk openly about their emotions. 

The memories with the most resonance for us are emotional ones, and of those, it’s the memories which bring us pain rather than joy that linger. And they do linger, and fester too, if they are not brought out into the open and allowed to heal. This is where our professional world so often goes wrong.

Legislation is essential to ensure that all employers respond to mental health issues with understanding and compassion. Negative mental health is a silent killer, which costs the country a great deal in terms of economic productivity, treatment and social care. 

Business leaders, the ones with the power to make changes, must create a more humane culture in their own workplace. It makes good business sense: employees who feel valued and supported will be more productive and loyal. Additionally, employees who are upskilled to support colleagues in a positive way will themselves experience a sense of reward and fulfilment. 

“We need business leaders to step up and create a more humane culture in their own workplace” 

At Imperial College Business School, students learn how to improve their leadership mindset with authenticity and compassion through experiential exercises on the Leadership Skills course.

They are encouraged to talk about the importance of mindfulness and mental health on our organisational behaviour and leadership courses, and I have created a whole experiential learning programme to teach self-awareness, mindfulness, compassion and emotional intelligence. 

There are so many ways leaders can create this culture within their own company, irrespective of business type, size or sector:

  • Prioritise mental health initiatives in the workplace, particularly around remote working
  • Have clear, compassionate policies which are transparent and flexible, for all genders
  • Upskill yourself and offer trauma-informed training to staff so that everyone is more aware of their own mental state and how to help others
  • Raise awareness and form a coalition with other leaders to influence Government policy and legislation, as Paul Polman has done around climate change
  • Recognise the business assets created when employees feel a sense of belonging and psychological safety at work

In a world which is stressful and challenging, compassion must be at the heart of business. Business is nothing without people, so let’s lift them up when they’re running and catch them when they fall.  

While others speculate on the future, our diverse minds at Imperial College Business School are designing and building it. For more insight from the world’s top academics and industry experts, visit Many Minds.

Sankalp Chatuverdi is a Professor of Organisational Behaviour & Leadership at Imperial College Business School.

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