The importance of leading with compassion

Safety and wellbeing at work

As we slowly return to the workplace business leaders can help the company retain talent by adopting a truly human first approach.

Mark Carney, the retiring Governor of the Bank of England’s recent article in the Economist noted that the Covid-19 pandemic could cause a fundamental shift in how companies in the future will be judged based on how they treated people during the crisis. With the world in disarray there is a social duty to look after one another as we move forward. A duty that extends beyond our home life and into the workplace. How business leaders act now will be remembered. For we are at a reckoning point in history. A point in which business leaders who act with compassion will not just be remembered but can take the world into a fresh direction. 


Leading through change

HR’s role has always echoed and mirrored changes in economics and with businesses currently more trusted than government (Edelman 2020) they are in a prime position to lead this change. The motto of “human first” has been a growing message over the last few years. However, it is not just a nice to have, it is suddenly a must have with a new and urgent meaning. Wellbeing and safety has  been thrown sharply into focus. It is no longer just about enhancing health, it is now a matter of urgently preventing disease spreading. Yes, you could argue that prevention of disease has always been a long-term goal of wellbeing programs but there is a difference. In the past that goal was seen to be the prevention of long term and chronic illness through changing unhealthy lifestyle choices and alleviating stress. Now the goal of prevention of disease is from an immediate threat. Preventing the spread of communicable diseases like Covid-19 needs a very different approach. 

The messaging around how to keep safe is currently confusing and even if understood it is constantly changing. It is the role of business leaders and HR to step up to communicate what they are doing to protect the safety of their employees, to lead with confidence but also compassion. We are dealing with the unknown, new stresses surround us. They are taking an emotional toll. Research from McKinsey shows that the steps HR and business leaders take now will set the foundation for the new culture of trust and wellbeing at work, increasing not just engagement but retainment at a time when companies need it the most. 


Safety first

If you look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a classic psychological model for our motivation and need states, you will see a pyramid made up of five levels. On each level is something we strive for as a human. It starts with physiological needs (shelter, food) at the bottom. Once this is fulfilled, we look to safety needs (health and security). On the next level is our need for love and belonging (connection), penultimately self-esteem (recognition), and finally at the top, self-actualisation (our desire to be our best selves). 

Normally wellbeing programs target the top two rungs; self-esteem and self-actualisation. They sit on the rung below bolstered by a workplace environment that has developed a culture of trust and belonging. Wellbeing programs aim to give people a sense of worth and validation. By doing so employees are motivated to change their behaviours in a way that has positive, and calculable health costs. The Covid-19 crisis has shifted our priorities downwards when it comes to wellbeing. Suddenly our immediate physical safety is at stake.

As people return to the workplace wellbeing programs need to acknowledge this. If a need on a lower rung on the pyramid is not fulfilled, the higher ones can never be met. Safety and wellbeing have always been linked but now the focus is on safety first. 

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs


As we emerge from this period HR and business leaders will need to ensure the business is able to make an authentic contribution to the safety aspect of wellbeing in order to establish trust and provide a productive working environment for employees. Safety here is bottom line prevention of disease but it comes hand in hand with financial safety (the rung below) and psychological safety (the rung above). Thus leaders must show a clear understanding of the standards and expectations, openly acknowledging that the physical safety of employees is paramount. They must create psychological safety and make it clear that personal value is a focus. Finally they must be transparent about how the company will support financial security for its people over this difficult time and beyond. 

I am not going to go into the cost benefits of wellbeing programs, though the evidence is there in concrete terms: productivity, retention, ROI, I simply want to highlight one fact: in this current climate where our basic needs of safety are at risk, well-being programs must reflect this and help employees achieve all of their needs, both physical, social, and emotional.

Academics writing for The Society of Occupational Medicine in their December 2019 paper, the Value of Occupational Health to Workplace Wellbeing argued that the wellbeing practices in a company need to be based on “core business values, and the fit of a health and wellbeing programme with those values”. Core values right now are shifting, wellbeing programs must do the same and be aligned with business strategy and business objectives. Far from deserting the ‘human first’ motto in order to make up lost productivity and stabilise in a time of financial crisis, leaders must embrace it and fully and truly understand what it means in this current time. The key driver of the most successful wellbeing programs studied were from those who asked “‘what kind of employer are we; how do we look after our people?” Those that were compassionate. 

So when you next hear this call for leading with compassion think about what it actually means in your company. And remember, leading with compassion and empathy at this time does not mean sacrificing financial goals for the needs of employees. Quite the opposite, it means understanding that the needs of employees are the key to financial goals. It’s time to look at your wellbeing programs and readjust your priorities. Do so and you will increase productivity and retain vital talent.