Many staff in English intensive care units are suffering significant mental health problems © Sean Gallup/Getty

It is now a given that the pressure cooker of coronavirus accelerates corporate change. But the crisis also boils sensible management ideas into leadership clichés in record time.

Take humanity, empathy and compassion. By the end of last year, almost every chief executive I interviewed was humble-bragging about how the crisis had taught them to appreciate the stress staff were under and to lead with a human touch. It made me wonder why they had not used these ingredients before the pandemic struck.

Tough decisions can be taken in humane and decent ways. “Kindness isn’t softness,” observes Kira Schabram of University of Washington, who has studied the relationship between compassion and burnout. “But for a long time we assumed there was no room for it in the workplace.”

A few years ago I took gentle issue with an internal job advert seeking candidates who “exuded kindness”. Now leaders are sloshing the K-word about in such quantities that their claims risk diluting its impact, in the same way casual overuse of “purpose” invites suspicion of what should be unimpeachable goals.

One concern is that some of these managers will pat themselves on the back for having weathered the storm, shelve compassion, and revert to their old ways as they lead their teams into the pandemic aftermath this year.

Another is that lieutenants of leaders who are struggling might be reluctant to raise their personal concerns, to the possible long-term detriment of their own wellbeing. I see this as a workplace equivalent of people choosing to ignore symptoms of potentially life-threatening conditions for fear of adding to the burden on pandemic-hit hospitals.

At the healthcare frontline, the pressure remains relentless. But there are already lessons to be drawn about burnout in wider society. A new study in the journal Occupational Medicine found 45 per cent of doctors, nurses and other staff in English intensive care units reported symptoms of significant mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, severe anxiety or depression, or problem drinking, during the first phase of the pandemic last year.

The study points to ways senior ICU staff trained in mental health help their teams through regular conversations. They also lead reflective sessions, where team members can, for example, express their emotions about “moral injury”, such as the death of Covid-19 patients despite their efforts.

It would be understandable if “compassion fatigue” were also a factor in wearing out empathetic colleagues. Here, though, Prof Schabram and her fellow researcher Yu Tse Heng have good news. Their separate study of social service providers and business students, just published by the Academy of Management Journal, confirms being compassionate to others can be good for you. Above all, performing acts of kindness helps reduce cynicism, one of three linked elements of burnout, the others being exhaustion and “inefficacy”, or dwindling performance. The kindness pool, in other words, is not finite. It can even be replenished.

The stigma previously attached to mental health problems is also easing. M&G, the savings and investment group, last week granted its chairman temporary leave of absence due to a stress-related illness, the latest company to admit to highlighting a condition that most used to bury. The company did not go into detail about the causes but he is certainly not the only one suffering. Corporate employee assistance programmes, rolled out and beefed up early in the crisis, are handling increasing numbers of calls.

Providing external resources to alleviate burnout is not good enough on its own, though, says Prof Schabram. “Self-compassion” is the best salve for exhaustion. In her experiment, timed nudges were enough to encourage stressed students to be kind to themselves. Even better would be to ensure that jobs are designed to minimise the risk of burnout in the first place.

Managers have plenty of incentives to continue to lead in a kindly way, pandemic or no pandemic. The ICU paper shows support offered by immediate line managers with appropriate training is particularly beneficial. Acts of kindness to others should also make managers feel better themselves. “We know that if you have poor mental health that affects your ability to deliver good quality care, but also good quality people management,” Neil Greenberg of King’s College London, lead author of the study into ICU staff, told me.

What’s more, as the Washington university paper confirms, being kind to others or to yourself cannot make burnout worse. So, given a choice, why not manage compassionately? After all, it ought to be easier for humans to lead like humans than like machines.

Twitter: @andrewtghill

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