Practising empathy to reduce anxiety at work

Caroline Evans, below, Managing Director at London Speech Workshop, looks at how organisations can build anxiety-free workplaces

According to The Workplace Health Report, 60% of employees experience anxiety, with a quarter experiencing clinically relevant symptoms. Research published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has also found that stress, anxiety and depression account for more than half of all work-related sickness absences. 

Workplace anxiety is also contributing to reduced business performance, with one in five employees reporting that poor mental wellbeing affects their productivity. And, yet, no-one should feel anxious at work. There may be pressure; deadlines, a client presentation or high expectations, but this should never lead to anxiety. Aside from it affecting your company’s bottom line, workplaces also have a duty of care when it comes to their employees’ wellbeing. Ensuring a low-anxiety workplace is about compassion and responsible business leadership, in equal measure. 

But how can this be done, when the line between pressure and stress or anxiety is often a blurry one, and when everyone responds to pressure differently? What’s motivating pressure to one person, could be anxiety-inducing stress to another. So how can leaders and managers navigate this complexity and provide the support needed to reduce anxiety?

If you want to be an employer of choice and create a high performing workplace that fosters employee loyalty, then you need to consider how well you’re listening to and taking care of your people.

This Stress Awareness Month, we spoke to Caroline Evans, Managing Director at London Speech Workshop about how organisations can build anxiety-free workplaces, The Serlin Method™ approach to creating psychological safety, and how practising empathetic leadership can help to foster this.

The signs of anxiety

Anxiety can present itself in diverse ways for different people, as it comes with many physical, social and psychological symptoms.

Symptoms you may recognise in employees can range from disengagement with work, increased irritability or restlessness, obvious fatigue or a lack of energy, a drop in work performance or a change in usual behaviour – such as more frequent sick days. (For a comprehensive list of anxiety symptoms, access this resource from the NHS).

However, some of the symptoms may not be visible to you, and people rarely feel comfortable proactively sharing their anxiety with others, even those closest to them. This means that leaders need to become adept at identifying the changes in behaviour that may indicate anxiety and, crucially, be able to communicate in a way that helps people discuss and manage anxieties openly and healthily.

Creating a safe place

The first step is to ensure you’re creating a safe environment for your people. A place where there’s no fear associated with mistakes or lapses in performance, where sickness or family emergencies are met without judgement, and where people feel able to say, “I don’t know” or “I need help”, is a place where psychological safety will thrive. In this place, leaders recognise that life outside of work isn’t a distracting inconvenience, but that it matters to the individuals and the collective.

In this space, it is much easier for leaders to recognise the signs of anxiety and ensure employees are protected against this. But how? The answer lies – in part – in empathetic communication.

The power of empathy

Empathy is the skill of reading people and understanding their feelings. It’s about being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This also helps us to think about others before we speak and to consider different points of view.

Like all skills, some people are naturally more empathetic than others. Whether you’re naturally empathetic, or find it more difficult to tune into others’ feelings, we can all improve our skills and become better at empathising, understanding our people and, in turn, reducing their anxiety. The key is in how we communicate – how we listen and engage.

All too often, leaders see their role as issuing blanket instructions and assuming that everyone will respond in the same way. This is not only disempowering for your people, but it also negates their own ways of working and emotional responses.

Instead, managing with empathy shows your people that you care for them. It enables you to understand what matters to them, as individuals, and, through that, how to motivate and inspire them to do their best.

Building the space

This combination of safety and empathy doesn’t happen by accident. And it’s not enough for a naturally empathetic leader to say, “how are you?”, from time to time. Instead, it’s about structuring safe spaces for sharing understanding. At London Speech Workshop, for example, we host monthly ‘Tea Time, Team Time’ sessions; with no phones, no laptops, no agenda and no hierarchy. It’s about spending time together and getting to know each other better.

We apply Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment to these sessions to ensure equal sharing and that all contributions are heard and valued. Additionally, 1-1s are sacred. They can be moved but never cancelled. They should happen on a routine basis, for example every fortnight, without exception – and managers should be trained in coaching skills and open questioning. Dedicated time between your people and managers fosters a feeling of being valued, heard and supported.

Through an environment of open communication, you can understand your people better and give them permission to share their concerns and worries openly, without fear of judgement.

Hone your skills

But what if empathy doesn’t come naturally? Luckily, research has found that empathy can be learned, and like all skills, regular practice is the key to improving. Below, we’ve listed some tools that you can add to your every day to increase empathy in all your communications. 

  1. Practise open questions

Give people the opportunity to open up to you. Instead of asking, “Are you alright?”, try an open question like, “What’s going on for you?”, which requires more than a yes or no answer.

Questions like this, that dig deeper, encourage people to open up and share their experiences. By asking open questions, you show that you care about the other person’s thoughts and feelings. This can help you to gain important insights into their emotional state and identify ways to support them better.

We use the Serlin principle of ‘let the answer be the mother of the next question’; be responsive to what someone is telling you, and adapt your questions to dig deeper and respond to what they need.

  1. Active Listening and Deep Listening

Active listening is vital for connection – and keeping your body language open, your eyes on them, and a warmth and responsiveness to your facial expressions is the best way to achieve this. When someone is speaking to you, leaning towards them and maintaining direct eye contact, with open and bright eyes, will demonstrate your interest. You can use occasional prompts and repeat or reflect on what’s being said. This will also help you to demonstrate empathy. When you show interest in the person in front of you, it sends a signal that you care about them.

Deep listening is when you let yourself tune in to what a person’s body language is telling you.  Someone may tell you that they’re having a great week, but by tuning into their micro-expressions, their energy, their tone, or even small changes in their behaviour, you may become aware of another story. Taking the time to sense what’s going on for a person will help you to pick up issues before they become problems.

  1. Consider values

It can be difficult to build empathy for people who are different to us, which may be common in the workplace if you don’t know your team members well. One way to overcome this is to learn your employees’ values and work out what makes them tick. A person who is motivated by supporting people will respond differently to someone motivated by achieving goals, for example.

By using the right skills, in the right environment, you will be able to understand a person’s values and how to best engage them. This, in turn, will mean they feel motivated and inspired, rather than daunted and anxious. At London Speech Workshop, we use our ‘Value Gathering’ tool. This uses safe topics of conversation (holidays, favourite meals or hobbies) to get a sense of a person’s values and enable better understanding.

Safety and empathy are crucial to open and effective communication. Conversely, open and effective communication are vital to creating a safe and empathetic environment.  Learn how to foster all these elements and intentionally embed and support them in your workplace, and you will create a place where people feel less anxious, and a place where they can be honest and open about any anxiety they feel. They will be happier, more motivated and more productive and you will have created a healthy workplace, where your people can thrive.