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Supporting Employees with Unprecedented Empathy

More than ever, leaders must care for their team members’ mental health with authenticity and empathy.

By Jon Freier, Executive Vice President, T-Mobile Consumer Group

The human mind will adapt to almost any situation, good or bad. It’s one of our more impressive abilities. But adaption requires mental, emotional and physical shifts, and these can impact our mental health in negative ways if we’re not careful.

As the leader of T-Mobile’s Consumer Group, I’ve witnessed tens of thousands of employees navigate massive change during the past year. Not only as a result of COVID-19, but also as we closed the largest merger in U.S. wireless history and had a series of important conversations on racial justice and equity in our country. Any of these events on its own is a lot to handle. All at once verged on catastrophic.

What should have been a year of celebrating together, building new relationships and collectively creating a new company culture instead became a time of isolation, fear and uncertainty.

Throughout it, the greatest temptation I struggled with — and one I heard from many people leaders — was the desire to just get through: show up to work, put our heads down and finish the day’s tasks. But had I adopted that rhythm, I would have failed one of my greatest responsibilities: leading my team.

Instead, I’ve developed a fresh perspective through facing this year’s adversities. What I’ve learned is that the most impactful way to lift each other up — not only during this Mental Health Awareness Month, but every month of the year — is with a renewed commitment to empathetic leadership.

Put simply, these unprecedented times affect our mental health in unprecedented ways. And that means that as leaders, we’ve got to show up for our teams with unprecedented empathy.

My retail team of over 35,000 employees is T-Mobile’s most diverse and distributed organization. In that multicultural, multigenerational spectrum, these people reflect the diverse communities we serve. That’s why I make it a priority to listen to them — to hear about their wins and their troubles, their compliments and their complaints. I’ve learned that more important than them hearing from me is me hearing from them. It’s my responsibility as a business leader to bring their thoughts, perspectives and ideas to the table where decisions are being made.

I’m also the executive sponsor of the Accessibility Community at T-Mobile (ACT) and the Veterans & Allies Network (VAN). ACT comprises more than 11,000 employees that have unique needs, talents and disabilities. And at 12,000 strong, VAN connects military members and their families to their communities in an effort to ensure everyone feels seen, heard and safe. Both groups are normalizing the process of seeking help and prioritizing self-care.

On a broader level, T-Mobile offers employees a wide range of human-centered wellness programs through our 24/7 LiveMagenta wellness hub. Individuals can confidentially access resources such as a life coach, mental health provider or crisis counselor.

These initiatives to bring mental health awareness into the workplace foster happier employees. According to an Accenture survey, 81% of employees had a positive experience from the first person they talked to about their mental health issues at work. They reported decreased levels of stress and feelings of isolation and an increase in confidence. They are more motivated and are twice as likely as others to say they love their jobs, and they’re also more likely to stay with their employer for at least the next year.

“They are more motivated and are twice as likely as others to say they love their jobs, and they’re also more likely to stay with their employer for at least the next year.”

Research shows that we have a lot of room to improve the average worker’s mental health situation – and a lot of this can be managed with empathetic leadership. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40% of workers in December 2020 reported dealing with a mental health condition like anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, double the early-2020 level. Half of those who responded in the study said mental health challenges affected their capacity to work. And when employees are struggling with emotional issues, they are less productive, more likely to take absences and are at greater risk of leaving the company. We need to be talking about how our teams are doing and then taking action to support them in the ways they need on an individual level.

I understand that talking about mental health is not a typical workplace conversation. But I’m not a typical business leader, nor is T-Mobile a typical employer. We are the Un-carrier, and we succeed because we do things differently. Whether it’s our obsession with the customer experience, our personal approach to customer care or our supportive, enthusiastic workplace culture, we value human connection. And we know just how crucial those connections are, especially when times are tough.

There’s a lot of hope on the horizon. As America continues progressing out of the pandemic, we’re recognizing unexpected ways it has affected our collective state of mind. I hope to see more calls to action from more executives at more companies. We need more conversation and more listening. More empathy.

We’ve been in this together all along. And we’ll make it out together, too.