The impact of empathetic leadership on preventing burnout


Empathetic leadership leads to stronger collaboration, less stress, and greater morale. However, many leaders struggle to make caring part of their organisational culture.


A recent study shows that burnout is a workplace problem, not a worker problem. It happens when there is a mismatch between the organisation and its employees in any of the following areas: workers’ amount of control, fair treatment, a sense of community, workload levels, the doling out of rewards, and organisational values. In most workplaces, under normal circumstances, employers and employees usually manage to find a healthier balance, however, the pandemic disrupted all of that.


Why a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work


The pandemic didn’t redefine burnout, but it has certainly aggravated the related forms of workplace distress, as many have seen an extreme intensification of their workloads and experiencing rising emotional difficulties and feelings of uncertainty. Remote work may have been welcomed by introverts, or those who enjoyed long periods of uninterrupted work time, but for many, losing contact with colleagues and their day-to-day routines have been distressing, putting them at higher risk for exhaustion and burnout.


A survey of 3,900 employees and business leaders discovered that burnout and fatigue are equally concerning for employees working remotely (43%) and those in a physical workplace (43%). Overall, three in five (59%) respondents say their organisation has taken at least some measures to guard against burnout, though nearly a third (29%) of employees wish their employer would act with more empathy.


Taking a one-size-fits-all approach to burnout prevention doesn’t help. Human-centred leadership that demonstrates empathy does. Empathetic leadership means having the ability to understand the needs of others and being aware of their feelings and thoughts. This in turn positively impacts performance, as studies show that leaders who are rated as empathetic by their teams are also rated as high performing by their own managers. Demonstrating empathy in the workplace also improves human interactions in general and can lead to more effective communication and positive outcomes, in both work and remote settings.


Recognising early signs of burnout


Burnout comes at greater risk during times of intense stress and pressure. Those who are skilled at empathetic leadership can recognise signs of overwork in others before burnout becomes an issue that results in disengagement or turnover. This might mean taking a few extra minutes each week to check in with team members to understand how they are handling their current workload, support them and help them to recover from overwork.


Leading with empathy involves understanding the unique needs and objectives of each team member, acknowledging that they are dynamic individuals who are carrying personal problems while having to maintain their professional responsibilities. Leaders with high levels of empathy are skilled at understanding a situation from another person’s perspective and reacting with compassion, enabling them to establish true connections with their team.


The first step towards building empathy in the workplace is the acknowledgement that it’s not something leaders either have or don’t have, but it’s something that can be developed. If given enough time and support, leaders can develop and enhance their empathy skills through coaching, training, or developmental opportunities and initiatives. At Acumen, we pride ourselves in offering development that gives managers practical tools to help solve real-life challenges. We offer an extensive menu of courses, workshops and coaching programmes, ranging from communication skills through to executive leadership development. In most cases, we design the interventions specifically for each client, but we also offer a wide range of off-the-shelf programmes for those who prefer this approach. For more information about our programmes please contact Simon at simon@askacumen.com.