‘Pay for empathy’ idea suggested by ex minister

Firms that put in place policies that embed empathy would get tax breaks in scheme floated at mental health summit

international men's day mental health


A growing understanding of the importance of empathy has been one of the biggest workplace changes brought about by the pandemic.

At last week’s MAD World mental health summit experts discussed how to encourage employers to be more empathetic.

One of the more eye-catching ideas was to offer financial incentives. Companies could see their National Insurance contributions cut in return for implementing concrete steps towards creating an empathetic workplace. The suggestion came from Norman Lamb, former Lib Dem Minister of state for care and support. He said supporting mental well being at work was a win win for employers and employees. Mental ill health is the leading cause of workplace absence in the UK.

Mental health

Lamb was speaking during a MAD World Summit panel discussion on mental health in the workplace. It was chaired by Jon Slade, Chief Commercial Officer at the Financial Times.

The panel kicked off with a discussion about how employers had been managing in the last six months.

David Oldfield, Group Director of Commercial Banking of Lloyds Banking Group, said it had been a very challenging period. Covid had moved from being a health crisis to an economic crisis and it could turn into a long-term mental health crisis if preventive action was not taken, he said. Lloyds has 50,000 employees working from home, which has given people greater work life balance. The crisis has emphasised the need for a “culture of care”. Lloyds has set up a coaching helpline for colleagues and a Your Resilience portal featuring resources aimed at boosting people’s resilience. It has trained leaders in emotional resilience and has 1,300 mental health advocates across the business.

Great leveller

Ann Francke, Chief Executive of the Chartered Management Institute, spoke about some of the good things that had come out of the last months. She said good management and leadership had never been more important. Covid has accelerated several trends including digital transformation. The move to remote working had shown it was possible not to be office bound and had ‘humanised’ work.

Francke said online meetings were a ‘great leveller’ with everyone being in the same small box and being able to see into each other’s homes. People’s engagement and job satisfaction had increased and people were happy to get a break from long commutes, although childcare had been a big issue. Leaders had become more inclusive, with more pulse surveys, roundtable discussions and a greater focus on talking and sharing. Francke said with the pressure to be more agile and with increased challenges ahead, there would need to be more focus on mental well being and a conscious effort to take preventive action.

Frontline workers

Norman Lamb now chairs the board of the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. He said fatigue was a big issue for frontline workers as were concerns about health, particularly for BAME workers. Staff had developed a ‘can do’ attitude and embraced digital communications. The Trust he chairs had done weekly broadcasts to all staff, giving them information on how to keep safe and on well being. The Trust had developed rest and recharge hubs for people who needed to take breaks. There was also a 24/7 helpline. However, he recognised that the next months would be a big challenge.

Dr Richard Peters, Chief Medical Officer at Network Rail, said complacency was now a danger after the new ways of working had become normalised. That meant the company had to keep reminding people about safety messages. It had done a wellbeing survey in which 63% of staff said their mental health was affected by Covid. In response Network Rail set up a wellbeing taskforce and working group. Line managers received extra training. Ongoing challenges included difficulties in understanding people’s moods if they were working remotely.

Reasons to celebrate

The panellists were also asked about the challenges of the next few months. Francke said people are aware that it is going to be hard going so they need reasons to celebrate. That includes recognising outstanding leaders. Some companies give out certificates and do weekly shout outs to outstanding managers. Others have wellbeing days off. Giving people flexibility and trusting them to get their job done is important as is getting people together to talk about the pressures they are experiencing and how they feel about them, she said.

Lamb said his Trust nominated people who had performed brilliantly and will hold an awards ceremony. He said that rewarding individuals who had gone the extra mile should be accompanied by general support and compassion for people who were just about getting through the crisis. That meant empathetic leadership.

Lloyds focused on burnout for World Mental Health Day last weekend. With winter approaching, Oldfield said it was important to be proactive and focus on a positive workforce culture.


Dr Peters said it was important to keep communicating. That means ensuring employees know about all the advice and support that is available. Staff also need to hear from senior leaders regularly. And they ought to be encouraged to focus on the importance of rest by diarising breaks. Dr Peters drew attention to the fact people can have different health challenges that interact, for example a back strain can impact on mental well being. He added that Network Rail uses virtual mindfulness rooms and said it is important to have a space to go where people can talk to someone if they need to.

He also emphasised the importance of giving people more control over how they work and providing support and information in case of redundancies.

With regard to the long term, Francke said it was important that we didn’t return to “factory settings” after Covid. Good things had come out of the crisis, she said – empathetic leadership, the importance of listening, flexible or hybrid working and a focus on transferable skills for those in industries worst hit by the pandemic. David Oldfield called on employers to design mental well being and care into every part of an organisation.

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