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In times of crisis compassionate leadership is a must have

Leaders must work to understand individual employees' circumstances during this trying time

COVID-19 has seen government and business urge people to unite and support each other through the long period of uncertainty ahead. The anxiety about health is further accentuated by concerns over job security, childcare and education.

While we’re all feeling anxious – leaders included – employees might have unique circumstances adding to their stress and anxiety.

Some will have vulnerable family members who may be at greater risk, while others may already suffer from anxiety and experience stress and fear more acutely. What’s needed, perhaps now more than ever, is compassionate leadership where the individual needs of staff are properly understood and addressed.

Being kind: begin with yourself

Business leaders are now finding themselves in what might, at a first glance, be considered an unenviable and stressful position. This is a new situation, we don’t always know what to expect, and there’s a need to constantly adapt to a rapidly-changing environment.

To be able to practise compassion towards their teams, leaders must begin my directing that compassion toward themselves. Self-care might involve setting time aside to read, just sitting to savour your morning coffee without distractions, going for a walk at lunchtime, or setting aside 10 minutes to meditate. Practising meditation for compassion helps to cultivate a softer kinder mind and enables leaders to direct that goodwill towards their employees.

Practising compassionate leadership

You cannot get the best out of people during a pandemic if you fail to empathise with the pressures they face. There are ways of exercising compassionate leadership that will help those in positions of authority connect with their teams in this way.

In the first instance it’s important to check in regularly with teams, and try to observe subtle cues that go beyond what members say. These can often be revealed in their energy levels or tone of voice. There’s also an opportunity to practise mindful listening (to really listen without judgement) and allow staff to express how they feel mentally and physically.

It’s vital to acknowledge that a wide range of emotions will be felt across the team. So take the time to acknowledge the diversity of experiences at play and respond to them in a skilful way, with kindness and without giving way to judgement or frustrations that can sometimes arise.

Take an evidence-led approach

When working to understand employees' different circumstances and the ways they are experiencing and responding to the current environment it’s important to adopt ways of gathering this information. Take a coherent approach to keeping track of it so that leaders can respond appropriately in turn.

The use of stress surveys can be enormously useful so that an organisation can adapt its workplace mental health programmes accordingly. It will enable you to target specific demographics that may be more affected than others, and to customise resources to meet their needs.

Use the findings to recommend the right measures. Examples could include meditations designed to reduce stress or anxiety, breathing exercises, or delivering useful content on how to deal with negative thoughts.

Focusing on the mind

Ultimately businesses are left with a hefty price to pay – through absenteeism and lost productivity – if employee stress and anxiety are not addressed in a tactful and methodical way. Fortunately the digital age has created new options for employers to add value to the lives of their workers, so that even now social distancing and self-isolation are a necessity their effects can be mitigated.

Increased stress and anxiety during the current situation are natural, but we can all take steps to adopt habits that encourage kindness and compassion for ourselves, our colleagues and loved ones.

James McErlean is general manager, Europe at Headspace for Work