Did you see the news item last week about the sharp rise in eating disorders among teenage girls during Covid? This is just the latest in a long and distressing line of revelations about the fragility of young people’s mental health today. What’s more, each of these youngsters suffering has a family, parents and carers who are deeply worried, and what I hear from friends, colleagues and clients is the hidden toll this health crisis is taking on them too. And this is just one more reason why compassionate leadership is so important.

These parents and carers are out there day-to-day working hard in our teams, among our leaders, alongside us in our organisations, doing their very best under unbearably difficult circumstances. Work can be challenging enough, even without the continual concern for loved ones suffering back at home, in school, even in hospital. When they’re experiencing lack of sleep, hyper-vigilance and the constant anticipation of a crisis text or call, it will sap their energy, shorten their fuse and befuddle their concentration.

In short, we rarely know the full extent of what colleagues and clients are going through in their personal lives, so when someone isn’t performing at their best, is distracted or late, compassionate leadership must be our starting point.

How you can help

It’s natural for people to want to keep their private lives, well, private. It’s not necessarily appropriate or comfortable to talk about problems at home in the workplace, not least because there may be issues of confidentiality or personal safety. But when it comes to compassionate leadership, this doesn’t matter. A leader doesn’t need to know the details of what is going on, they simply must be willing to listen, understand and to give whatever support the person needs.

As we discussed in our recent blog on empathy vs compassion, the difference between these two responses to distress is that compassionate leaders do something to help. They don’t just sympathise and express concern, they actively provide assistance, and importantly, not on their own terms, but on the terms of the person needing support.

Even without knowing specific details of the person’s situation, it’s possible to ask them what you can do to help. There may be practical things relating to the workplace routine which will help to ease their suffering, and sometimes very small changes can make a surprisingly big difference. If they want to talk, be prepared to listen with an open mind and in total confidence.

Practising self-compassion

But what if it’s you, the leader, who is dealing with family or homelife stress? Such added pressure when you’re in a role of responsibility can be severely debilitating, affecting not just you but your wider team. If you’re at the top of an organisation it can feel as though there’s no-one to whom you can speak or ask for help, and understandably some leaders are reluctant to reveal their worries for fear of appearing weak.

This is where practising compassionate leadership means first focusing on self-compassion. Give yourself breathing space. Diarise some downtime, delegate where you can and reprioritise tasks wherever possible. Think how you would react if a colleague came to you in a similar situation and give yourself the same kind of support you would offer them.

Remember what matters

I saw a great post on LinkedIn recently by Joshua Boots, who works for a housing organisation called Saxon Weald. He took a photograph of a poster at one of their construction sites, which read:

‘Nothing you do on this site today will be as important as going home to your family and loved ones.’

With 11,500 reactions so far, it’s evident that this piece of workplace wisdom has really struck a chord, but interestingly the 200-odd comments show a wide range of responses to the message. Among the many positive messages, some are cynical about why a company would need to point this out and others write that it’s easy to say such things but the reality is often different.

And this points to the greatest challenge of compassionate leadership: to ensure that your compassionate culture isn’t built on empty words, but on actions and behaviour that come right from the top of the organisation.

When lives (not just livelihoods) are at stake, we must remember what matters. As we saw through the pandemic, the bonds of human kindness are strong and can achieve wonderful things, and compassionate leadership can be the bedrock of a thriving and successful team.

You can read more about the role of compassion in leadership here, or contact us for leadership mentoring support through difficult times.

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