Faculty Focus

Leading with Empathy

◆ 5 minute read

Leading with Empathy

A nation is engulfed in a mental health crisis yet few people are talking about it in the workplace; a pattern that one Chambers College professor is hoping to change.

The image of the ideal employee – readily available, productive, healthy and willing to be worked to the bone – is creating more harm than good, according to Kayla Follmer, assistant professor of management. 

Follmer has been unraveling slices of research often overlooked within a business and economics college. Her focus is on mental health in the workplace. 

“The people conducting research on mental illness are typically in fields outside of management and organization science, like vocational rehabilitation, psychiatry and clinical psychology,” Follmer said. “While these parties are trained in the clinical portions, they may not have as much knowledge of the theories related to management. I’ve thought this is a really good opportunity for our scholars to bring what we know about the workplace and merge it with what they know about clinical disorders to help bring about change.”

That change? Destigmatize mental health. 

It’s a taboo topic and no one wants to talk about it, Follmer stated. 

One place where it’s free and encouraging to delve into is in Follmer’s classroom. 

“I talk about mental illness and suicide with my students and it's not always an enjoyable lecture to have, but it's one that I think is really important,” she said. “I'll have my students take a stress inventory. They evaluate the ways they cope and then they look at those strategies and determine if those mechanisms are effective or not. Even from a personal standpoint, I’ve had students reach out to me if they’re having a hard time, because they know I am someone safe they can turn to. I always refer them to the Carruth Center. It’s become sort of a slogan for me that we invest in our physical health all the time but don’t invest enough in our mental health. And I want students to let go of any shame or fear for seeking mental health related help”

Follmer has published several research papers on the topic. In one study, she found that common workplace interactions can trigger suicidal thoughts for employees with mood disorders. Perceived low-grade forms of workplace mistreatment, such as avoiding eye contact or excluding a coworker from conversation, can actually amplify suicidal thoughts in employees with mood disorders, that research found. 

In another study, Follmer discovered that employees tend to lean on eight strategies to disclose – or conceal – mental health at work. Follmer recognized that mental illness can be a concealable identity, much like religious affiliation, sexual orientation or having conditions such as HIV or diabetes: you can’t always see it from the outside. Because of this, employees must carefully consider whether they will disclose this identity to others. 

This led her to wonder how people manage this identity at work. 

“Are people with depression disclosing their disorder at work?” Follmer asked. “Are they telling other people and how are they going about it?” ( Read Follmer’s findings here.)

In a related study, Follmer found that workplace culture and social support affected if employees chose to disclose. And that when employees disclosed for positive reasons (e.g., to be authentic), they were much more engaged in their work than when they disclosed for negative reasons, like trying to prevent themselves from being fired. 

For another project, Follmer showed that people with mental illness bring positive, unique characteristics to the workplace. 

“Some individuals, as a result of their mental illness, exhibit more empathetic characteristics,” she said. “Some described themselves as being hyper-focused on tasks and projects, while others highlighted their ability to be empathetic toward others. These are positive characteristics we can leverage in the workplace and we can use this information to place individuals into jobs in which they will fit.”

Such research is important from a management perspective because colleges need to teach the next generation of business leaders how to delicately and professionally address these issues within the workforce.

“On one hand we have the popular press reporting epidemic levels of mental illness and suicide,” Follmer said. “Yet none of that has been historically reflected in management research. I feel it’s an injustice because there are millions of employees each year experiencing mental illness and we don’t do a good job bringing their experiences to light or trying to adapt our workplaces to meet their needs.

“Employment is important and fills so many needs. It’s access to money. It’s access to safety. It gives people access to well-being and purpose in life. My approach is to determine how we can make the workplace more accessible and inclusive for all individuals. Through research, we can help individuals fulfill those needs and fulfill those desires to contribute to society.”