What does empathy at work actually look like?

Art Kashyap final

Ocado’s Global Head of Wellbeing & Inclusion, Arti Kashyap-Aynsley, is perfectly placed to speak about empathy because – not only does she have a remit for employee wellbeing – she is also a qualified coach, voracious reader and listener on the topic, and a mum.

As well as this, she’s held pastoral roles in companies like Deloitte, specifically focused on creating a culture of care for young employees. We caught up with her ahead of her panel session at our sister event, The Watercooler, on ‘Building Inclusive Organisational Cultures of Care’.

What themes are you seeing with the experience of younger generations?

Yes, I was a visible leader for young employees at Deloitte, and it meant that I became an outlet. I started to see a lot of the issues we discussed in Make A Difference’s recent webinar on mind health.

People were really struggling coming into the work environment and all the elements that brings with it. For example they didn’t know how to navigate a work environment including how to interact with their managers, something many had never done before. They didn’t even know / understand what was appropriate to wear to work, and other things that we as seasoned professionals take for granted such as transparency and open communication.

They were often dealing with being on their own for the first time, moving in with peers, without a parent around and / or they were commuting, spending money on travel, tired and doing jobs they’re weren’t sure why they were doing. Then, add in comparison culture and imposter syndrome, which are huge with younger generations.

And a lot of these topics I was seeing with the Deloitte Graduate Schemes I’m now seeing in graduate schemes at the likes of Ocado. These challenges they are facing undoubtedly permeate and impact their day to day lives.

So what’s the role of the employer? It sounds like you were almost like a bridge between their previous life with their parents and their adult life. How do you get that balance of care right?

That’s a hard one, right?

There’s an onus on graduate schemes to hone in on soft skills. We need to be asking: are we talking to them about confidence? Communication skills? Writing skills? And the basics, such as: how does the office structure work? Who are the people that you’ll be interacting with? And what do those interactions look like? How do you have a difficult conversation? How do you communicate with your manager? When is it appropriate? And how do you ask for what you need? And who do you seek support from?

As an employer, you can assume that you can jump right into technical skills and expect that to be enough. We have to step back and say ‘actually, there’s a responsibility on our side to understand where employees are at, at every level’. We have a responsibility to create a space and encourage people to open up, if they want to.

But even if you are a skilled, emotionally intelligent, caring line manager – this doesn’t guarantee that an individual will open up to you, does it?

No. You can’t force anyone to share anything they don’t want to. The reality is that it’s not your responsibility, as the employer, to solve the challenges that they’re experiencing. But it is your responsibility to provide that space, and then perhaps be able to guide them to where they can get some support.

What kind of skills and things would you encourage other line managers to do if they find themselves in a role which has that word ‘care’ in their remit, that might freak them out?

The first thing I’m going to call out here is that not everyone can play this role.

To anyone that manages people, I would say that if you don’t feel comfortable in these pastoral roles, or being that empathetic person, that’s okay. There needs to be an element of being able to recognise who you are. We don’t want to force anyone to be anything that they’re not, or do anything that they don’t feel comfortable doing.

If somebody reaches out to you and you don’t feel comfortable having the conversation, then it’s about providing further guidance and support, and directing them to someone in your network with whom they can continue the conversation.

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Another thing I’d urge managers who feel uncomfortable to do is ask themselves why. Ask: is this just not who am, as an individual? And that’s fine. Or is it because I myself have some things I need to work through, that I haven’t faced yet?

It’s true what they say about not being able to pour from an empty cup and that it’s really hard to lean into someone else’s struggles, if you’ve haven’t looked after yourself first from a wellbeing perspective.

What about if you realise it’s not a strength currently, but you want to build it?

Actively seek out information that’s going to help you build those skills. There are plenty of books and resources out there! And perhaps there are courses that your organisation provides that you can do on coaching, for example? Or having difficult conversations?

Employers should be providing employees with the opportunities to have these self-development, personal growth and learning opportunities.

Younger generations now are familiar with the phrase ‘doing the work’ referring to self-reflection and their own inner psychological work. Do you feel like there’s any tension on this front between older and younger generations?

Yes. Bringing the generations together and understanding that divide is important. That’s why a lot of companies have done things like reverse mentoring schemes because it helps bridge that gap. I’ve seen senior managers and directors struggle with the self-reflection piece. It’s not that they don’t feel that it’s appropriate, but more like discomfort as they’ve never had to ask themselves these questions before.

Why not? Was the world just less complicated when they started out?

Well, when I started my career almost 20 years ago you never shared this kind of information, or talked about things like anxiety or depression at work. I don’t know if it was a cultural thing, or whether it’s the fact that social media has changed the landscape.

Facebook, after all, was only just starting up when I began my career and back then it was about connecting with friends, not about exhibiting vulnerability which is what it is more of a reflection of today.  

You talked in this feature about the tricky balance employers have to achieve between creating a culture of care but not being paternalistic. Do you think it’s particularly hard for mothers to strike this balance?

My gut instinct is to say yes, 100%. Although I don’t like to gender the issue. However, if I compare my husband and myself, for example, if someone in my team is experiencing something really difficult, I find that devasting. I will take these emotions home in a way he doesn’t. But I don’t know if that’s because I’m more empathy driven, or because I’m a woman and a mum.

(Click on the video too to find out how coaching has both helped and hindered Arti when it comes to creating the right type of psychological space for her team at work)

The idea that an individual needs to feel seen, heard and valued is at the heart of many psychological therapeutic approaches. To what extent do you think it’s an employer’s role to make an employee feel seen, heard and valued?

It’s huge. Employees are an organisation’s biggest asset. We spend a third of our lives working. So if I I’m spending so much of my time in a place where I don’t feel valued, seen or heard, that’s going to have a detrimental effect on my well being.

Obviously a CEO is not going be able to make every employee feel seen, heard and valued but that’s the role of the line manager and the team’s day to day environment.

Sometimes the fact that this therapeutic terminology is being used in the workplace is mocked and labelled “too woke”. How do organisations strike the right balance here?

The difference is that the way we feel seen, valued and heard looks different for everyone. For some it means recognition. For others it may mean pay or some sort of benefit. For others, it’s a simple thank you. So there’s an element of working out and understanding what employees want.

To meet Arti in person, and contribute to the conversation come along to our sister event the Watercooler on April 25th and 26th, 2023. 

The Watercooler, named in recognition of those crucial moments of connection between employees, is a free to attend conference and exhibition which demonstrates that wellbeing IS the future of work. For themes that were ‘hot topics’ at last year’s event, like line manager wellbeing, see this article.

Taking place at Excel London, The Watercooler event is where you can gather to join ideas together, make connections, learn from peers’ experiences and find the right solutions for your organisation – whatever its size and shape.

For reasons why this is a must-attend event for anyone interested in workplace wellbeing, see this article here

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