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The Rise of the Compassionate Workplace

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It's OK not to be OK. And as odd as it sounds, that may be one of the silver linings to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in the workplace.

"There is a higher level of empathy," says Adele Spallone, vice president of clinical operations at The Hartford whose team works with employers every day to get disabled workers back to active productive lives.

More than ever, employers are seeing beyond the job title and recognizing who really is behind those desks, assembly lines and various work stations. They are caregivers trying to balance work and in-home schooling while adjusting to an abrupt loss of normalcy. They are people concerned daily about the health of safety of their elderly parents. They are social beings who are now in isolation and miss connecting with others. COVID-19 has been an emotional rollercoaster of anxiety and uncertainty. But it is also giving rise to a more compassionate workplace.

"Employers are more understanding and definitely more flexible," says Spallone, who is also a licensed mental health counselor.

Allowing remote work, creating flexible work schedules, and revamping work areas with safety measures are just some of the approaches that employers can take to help address some mental health conditions and keep their teams safe. These accommodations can be simple to make but may speak volumes about an employer's compassion and concern.

Meaningful communication can also go a long way to help employees cope with the day-to-day stress and to support an employee who is out for an extended period on leave. In fact, mental health conditions are among the top five reasons for U.S. workers to file a short-term disability claim. Spallone says creating a lot of touch points for those workers can be critical for recovery. From her team's work in The Hartford's workers' compensation and group disability businesses, she knows firsthand what a difference that can make.

"We have the ability to see patterns and trends. Employees say they have improved recovery when they feel their managers are checking in on them," she explains.

Some conversations are harder to have than others, however. For many people, it's not easy to talk about one's depression and anxiety and especially in the workplace. A recent study from The Hartford found that 68% of employers reporting that their workplace encourages open dialogue about mental health. However, only 42% of employees said they felt their workplace encourages open dialogue about mental health.1

Fostering a culture where employees feel safe in talking about their mental health conditions begins with empathy and education. Helping employers understand how to create a stigma-free culture was the topic of a recent webinar by The Hartford and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

NAMI and The Hartford's experts expressed optimism during the webinar discussion, noting half of U.S. workers surveyed by The Hartford believe discussing mental health topics in the workplace will become more accepted as a result of the pandemic.

"This is one of the greatest opportunities for culture change and empathy that we've ever seen," said Ken Duckworth, M.D., chief medical officer for NAMI.

"This has been the blessing through the pandemic – the ability to think about ourselves as human beings differently and incorporate the sense of wellbeing in the workplace," said Spallone. "Employees are more engaged and employers more understanding. We really have a higher level of empathy. We can learn from this."

For more insights and advice visit The Hartford's employer resource center.

For more mental health resources visit National Alliance on Mental Illness.


  1. The Hartford, 2020 Future of Benefits Study (Feb. 27-March 13, June 15-June 30)

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