Sankalp Chaturvedi

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Compassionate leadership should be at the heart of business – but leaders are falling short

Humans are unpredictable, emotional, and often respond very differently to troubling circumstances. While we may feel indestructible one day, it is entirely possible to feel anxious the next. What pains one person may go completely unnoticed by another. Psychologically, our minds have the ability to both amaze and cripple us in equal measure.  

During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many of us have experienced frequent periods of emotional tumult, including higher levels of fear, anxiety and stress. This has highlighted an important issue: workers are often suffering negative mental health as a result of circumstances outside their control – this could be a global pandemic, a death in the family, job loss or any number of psychologically traumatic events. 

This has demonstrated a need for policies that recognise the effect negative mental health can have on workers. But what can organisational leaders proactively do to help employees experiencing mental health issues and create compassion in the workplace?

What is a compassionate leadership style?

Compassionate leadership is the ability to demonstrate humanity towards employees’ issues, thus creating a healthy environment where they feel psychologically safe, and which can lead to increased productivity. Government legislation regulates measures regarding worker’s personal issues but compassion and humanity are notable by their absence in our government legislation.

As an example, legislation around bereavement or “compassionate leave” in the UK arguably falls short. The Employment Rights Act 1996 obliges employers to give employees a “reasonable” number of days off unpaid, following the death of a family member or dependent, which usually results in workers taking between two and five days away from work. A new Parental Bereavement bill allows two weeks of paid leave for both parents when they lose a child aged under 18. But this legislation leaves some important gaps. For example, what about stillbirth, miscarriage, the death of a close friend, or a 19-year-old child? Clearly, grief is not limited by age or family ties and compassion and humanity are notable by their absence in our government legislation. 

By comparison, New Zealand’s leader has a far more progressive and empathetic approach to mental health. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is an exemplar of a leader whose behaviour is rooted in humanity and compassion. She has shown the world how to proactively manage the COVID-19 crisis with kindness, which has had tangible outcomes on rates of infection and mortality. She has also led the way in approving legislation that provides couples suffering a miscarriage or stillbirth three days of paid leave. She has the ability to anticipate public emotion, act proactively and with specificity, and thus introduce compassionate and effective policies. Many countries could learn a great deal from her approach to leadership.

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The cost of negative mental health and what leaders can do

The cost of untreated mental health problems can have a huge impact on a country’s finances and while we have undoubtedly improved our awareness and understanding of its impact in the workplace, we are a long way from creating the sense of security that would allow employees to come forward and talk openly about their emotions. The goal should be creating working environments where workers know they can do this and be offered compassion and support for however long it is needed. It is telling that the memories with the most resonance for us are emotional ones, and of those, it’s the memories which bring us pain rather than joy that linger. And they do linger, and fester too, if they are not brought out into the open and allowed to heal. This is where our professional world so often goes wrong.

Legislation is essential to ensure that all employers respond to mental health issues with understanding and compassion. Negative mental health is a silent killer, which costs the country a great deal in terms of economic productivity, NHS treatment and social care, and the tentacles of negative mental health reach far beyond the individual. 

Compassion and humanity are notable by their absence in our government legislation

Business leaders who operate with compassion and create a more humane culture in their own workplace can actually achieve more. It makes good business sense: employees who feel valued and supported will be more productive and loyal, while those who feel safe will speak up when they need help. Additionally, employees who are upskilled to support colleagues in a positive way will themselves experience a sense of reward and fulfilment. 

At Imperial College Business School, students learn how to improve their leadership mindset with authenticity and compassion through experiential exercises on the Leadership Skills course. We also talk about the importance of mindfulness and mental health on our organisational behaviour and leadership courses. I have created a whole experiential learning programme to teach self-awareness, mindfulness, compassion and emotional intelligence, using horses at the stables near the White City Campus. 

These are some ways leaders can demonstrate compassion within their own company, irrespective of business type, size or sector and in absence of concrete government legislation:

  • Prioritise mental health initiatives in the workplace, particularly around remote working
  • Have clear, compassionate policies which are transparent and flexible, for all genders
  • Upskill yourself and offer trauma-informed training to staff so that everyone is more aware of their own mental state and how to help others
  • Raise awareness and form a coalition with other leaders to influence Government policy and legislation, as Paul Polman has done around climate change
  • Recognise the business assets created when employees feel a sense of belonging and psychological safety at work

In a hybrid world which is stressful and challenging, compassion must be at the heart of business. Business is nothing without people, so let’s lift them up when they’re running and catch them when they fall.

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Sankalp Chaturvedi

About Sankalp Chaturvedi

Professor of Organisational Behaviour & Leadership
Professor Chaturvedi is Professor of Organisational Behaviour & Leadership and Associate Dean of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion at Imperial College Business School. He also leads the Gandhi Centre for Inclusive Innovation.

He holds a PhD from the NUS Business School, National University of Singapore, and previously completed a Master’s in Human Resource Development & Management from the Indian Institute of Technology.

Professor Chaturvedi’s research focusses on effective leadership, mindfulness, and collaboration mechanisms in teams, and he has published articles in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Organizational Behavior & Human Decision Processes, Strategic Management Journal, Leadership Quarterly and Journal of Management, among others.

You can find the author's full profile, including publications, at their Imperial Profile

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