How Professional Empathy Cures the Blue Monday Slump

Blue Monday – when lack of sunlight, the burden of post-Christmas debt, and festive family rifts collide with job dissatisfaction and the overall down of being back from the holidays. The most depressing day of the year.

January 18, 2020 3 mins read

As a statistician, I know Blue Monday is total pseudo-science. There is no one day when all these problems converge, and statistically speaking, TUESDAY is actually the least happy day of the week as it feels the furthest away from the weekend. But, the fact that Blue Monday continues to resonate with people year after year shows that there is something in it. 

While I can’t help with cash flow problems, make the sun shine or fix family rifts, I do have ideas about how businesses can lift the blues out of their employees’ workdays.

It all boils down to how well people work together.

Workplace Culture Defined

Many companies seek to define a workplace culture as a way to create the best opportunities for people to work well together. Because of all the different roles and jobs within any company, team leaders should be able to leverage the variety of strengths and personalities to build stronger teams. 

However, while defining a set of values for everyone to live by might seem like a good idea, a recent study on where cultures go wrong found that only 28% of employees thought their organisation’s values and actions were well aligned. This lack of alignment can often start at the top. In 2018 the number one reason why top CEOs left their jobs was unethical behaviour

This is why I think that the main challenge of improving any workplace culture is in the DOING, not the defining. Few businesses would claim to want to win by unethical behaviour, but high-pressure environments mean that values are sometimes stretched or even forgotten. This doesn’t have to be the case. The trick is consistently checking in with people and how their work is going – from the shop floor to the top floor. 

How to Build a Positive Workplace Culture

It’s important to not just concentrate on problems, but to also celebrate when things are going well. Typically, large organisations worry about stress and burnout, which is, of course, a good thing. However, if their whole culture improvement programme is focused on reducing stress then it, in turn, creates stress. 

That’s why I recommend taking the science of happiness and positive emotions very seriously. While it is wise to be vigilant about negative trends and respond and action issues quickly, the best companies also spend considerable time and effort focusing on what is going right and building on positive trends. 

In this light, it’s not an ‘either/or’ situation but rather an ‘and/both’. If you try and cover problems with positivity, it feels like some sort of ‘happy wash’ and comes across as inauthentic at best. On the other hand, if as a leader you never identify the positives, but instead always move swiftly onto the next challenge, then your team will very quickly feel ground down. 

So, where do you start? This might seem like a strange place but accepting that sometimes work is not great is a form of reaching that ‘and/both’ situation. This admission is being kind to ourselves as it respects our authentic experience without trying to cover it up with overly optimistic views. It also allows us to be empathetic by putting ourselves in other people’s shoes.

Building Professional Empathy

Empathy at work – or “professional empathy” as I like to call it – is one of the best ways of helping people be more positive at work. If you listen to people’s challenges then they start to feel heard and valued, which itself starts a virtuous cycle of trust, understanding, and positive emotions. Over time, this creates a natural counterbalance to negative emotional experiences and helps alleviate stress. 

What does it mean to really listen to someone? It means creating a safe space which allows leaders and team members to explore contexts, opportunities, and challenges that influence how you and your team feel. It is about seeking to understand rather than persuade, and recognising that every point of view (not just the loudest ones) matters. It takes true honesty and a lot of effort.

Ultimately, a weekly check-in is a natural way to have honest discussions with team members and to see how they’re doing. By asking team members “How happy were you this week?” you invite them to open up about how they feel about what’s going on within your workplace.  The key is as simple as talking together. 

In 2020, learn to lead with happiness, and you’ll beat the blues.