Opinion

Empathetic leadership

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During recent years there has been a welcome increased recognition of the importance of managing health and wellbeing within the workplace.


In particular, the human cost in relation to the mental health effects, have assumed greater prominence in many forward thinking organisations.

It has been estimated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) that 60 per cent of all working days lost are attributable to mental health issues, including stress, anxiety or depression. These conditions have been linked to increased likelihood of developing physical illness such as heart disease and diabetes.

Further, the annual cost of workplace ill health has been estimated at some £10 billion to the UK economy. If you then consider that HSE estimate that the actual costs of ‘presenteeism’, which is defined as attending work when unwell, is in the region of three times this figure, then it is understandable that businesses are starting to focus on the problem.

When set against a background of public sector austerity, slow economic growth and the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, those issues, together with a fast-changing workplace environment add to the general insecurity, and therefore, it can only add to poor mental health issues.

Surely then, it makes both moral and financial good sense that wellbeing in the workplace should be managed in the same manner as physical safety?

The combination of proportionate regulation, proactive risk management through systems and behaviours, provision of suitable resources, the integration of health and safety into all business processes and senior management commitment has seen dramatic improvements in the management of safety across all sectors.

You don’t have to be a manager to be a leader, but there can be no doubt that company culture is primarily reflective of top management behaviours and attitudes

The modern workplace is creating more and more psychosocial hazards that need a similar approach in order to proactively, rather than reactively, manage the effects on workers.

Although there are publicly available standards relating to wellbeing and stress management within the workplace, there is a strong argument for specific legislation to be introduced particularly around the issue of workplace mental health.

A good start, in my view, would be to make cases of work-related stress or mental health Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) reportable occurrences.

However, the proactive management of wellbeing in the workplace has to be driven by top management within any organisation.

You don’t necessarily have to be a manager at any level to be a leader, but there can be no doubt that the overall culture within the organisation is primarily reflective of the top management behaviours and attitudes.

The expected standards and support mechanisms can be set by this level of management and by demonstrating personal standards aligned with the organisation’s ethos, they can take control of the overall management of workplace wellbeing.

This requires top management who have the emotional intelligence to recognise how this influence can positively affect individuals and the organisation as a whole. In respect of workplace wellbeing this can be a powerful factor when used in a positive manner, but equally detrimental when behaviours at this level within the organisation fall short.

The benefits to individuals and businesses as a whole from clear, empathetic and holistic leadership within an organisation, together with a recognition of the different kind of hazards the changing modern workplace presents, are actually the indication of true leadership.

David Parr is director of policy and technical services at the British Safety Council

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