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Chapter Four - The HR Challenge

Building empathy and trust

There was a long silence on the other end of the phone.

“Take your time,” I said.

The young man was struggling to find the words to explain what he was feeling deep down. He started to speak but his breathing was haggard, his sentences were broken, and his voice was close to cracking. I was talking to a colleague who had been absent from work due to their anxiety and depression.

Working in HR operations back in the UK was humbling. The experience exposed me to a saddening reality: the exponential increase of people living with mental health issues and the impact on their work/life. While some progress has been made, the social stigma is still prevalent.

This was a particularly difficult call. I sensed his growing agitation and embarrassment. Yet he didn’t want to appear rude by ending the call which in itself elevated his anxiety further.

I decided to try something that wasn’t in any policy or process guide. I needed to gain his trust.

“Perhaps we could use a code word and that way you can indicate to me that you want to end the conversation without the ‘guilt’?”

We agreed on a silly phrase (not to be repeated here) to make things a touch lighter. It worked. To this day, I have no idea why, but it did. Everyone is different, everyone has different tolerance levels, and everyone reacts differently.

It took months of conversations, but the best reward was seeing him eventually return to work with a heightened sense of self-esteem.

Shared learning


- The fear of ‘getting it wrong’ when having difficult conversations is natural.

- Be prepared to adapt your approach.

- Apply policies and processes but do so while exercising empathy.

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