Compassion and work may seem incompatible bedfellows in all but a few health or care related professions where compassion is firmly on the agenda. Research increasingly suggests that compassion is a key workplace differentiator, one well worth cultivating. We examine what compassion is and how to develop it at work with our 8 stage checklist.
What is Compassion at Work and Why Does it Matter?
It almost seems an anathema to talk about compassion and business in the same breath. At first glance, they seem unlikely bedfellows in all but a few health or care related professions where compassion is firmly on the agenda. But step outside of healthcare and if compassion is considered at all, it is to be regarded as something that is ‘pink and fluffy’, nice to aim for, an add on, relegated to the bottom of an extremely long list, languishing far behind profit and productivity. Or worse still, a positive liability in a corporate cut throat world. The old adage of “Nice guys (and girls) finish last” still holds true in some organisational cultures. But is there a business case for compassion at work?
Compassion and work, strange bedfellows or not?
At first glance they might seem strange bedfellows; compassion and work? Surely not? Whereas compassion may not appear to be a priority in the work place there is increasing evidence that when it’s present, employees flourish and organisations thrive.
So what is compassion at work?
Sogyal Rinpoche describes Compassion as “not simply a sense of sympathy or caring for the person suffering, not simply a warmth of heart toward the person before you, or a sharp recognition of their needs and pain, it is also a sustained and practical determination to do whatever is possible and necessary to help alleviate their suffering”. Wharton Management Professor, Sigal Barsade describes compassion as “when colleagues who are together day in and day out, ask and care about each other’s work and even non-work issues.” Barsade talks about the importance of an emotional culture, stating that this is equally as important as cognitive organisational culture, stating compassionate employees “are careful of each other’s feelings. They show compassion when things don’t go well. And they also show affection and caring — and that can be about bringing somebody a cup of coffee when you go get your own, or just listening when a co-worker needs to talk.”
Put simply, compassion at work is empathy with action. The ability to notice the suffering of colleagues, whether it be a stressful day, a difficult conversation with peers or a problem at home – and then the ability to act upon that noticing.
Why is compassion at work important?
There is a growing body of research that suggests that the happier we are at work the more productive we are. Sonja Lyubomirsky’s research suggests that happier staff are more engaged, creative, productive and motivated. Successful leaders recognise that happy employees mean increased productivity and ultimately increased profit. It’s not just about the bottom line, nobody wants to be miserable in the place where they spend the majority of their waking hours.
It’s not just about the feel good factor and being civil to each other in workplace. In a 16 month longitudinal study “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” set in a health care facility, Barside and Olivia O’Neil researched the impact of compassion upon the emotional behavioural outcomes of employees. They found that compassion reduced levels of exhaustion and burnout. The researchers also saw a decrease in absenteeism with a corresponding increased levels of employee engagement. Increasingly research in the field of compassion at work is beginning t show that there are tangible results when we develop compassionate individuals, leaders and cultures;
• When we’re on the receiving end of compassionate leadership at work we’re more likely to be committed to our organisation and to talk about it in positive terms (Lilius et al. 2008)
When we experience compassion at work connects co-workers psychologically and results in a stronger bond between them (Frost et al. 2000).
Managers who believe that their organisation is concerned about their well-being are more likely to show supportive behaviour towards their team members (Eisenberger, 2006).
• Those who receive compassion are subsequently better able to direct their support and care giving to others (Goetz et al. 2010). As Bayside found, this is important in healthcare organisations. Working in a compassionate organisation reduces the chance of compassion fatigue and burnout in caregivers (Figley 1995). This also provides them with essential emotional resources that they need to care for their clients (Lilius et al. 2011).
• Compassionate leadership also influences employees’ perception of their colleagues and organisations. Studies show that employees who believe that their leaders care about their well-being are happier with their jobs and more commitment (Lilius et al. 2011). When we experience compassion ate work we are also less likely to leave the organisation, reducing employee turnover.
• Fredrickson et al. 2000 found that when we experience positive emotions our heart rate and blood pressure is lowered. Our psychological distress also decreases. Compassionate leadership has the potential to improve employee wellbeing.
How can you develop compassion at work?
Consider the way that you interact with others in the workplace. Think about;
- Say ‘Good Morning’ to colleagues, acknowledge their presence and let them know you care.
- Actively look for ways to help colleagues, direct reports and clients.
- If you’re making a coffee, offer to make one for a colleague.
- Notice how others are feeling, bring mindfulness to your interactions and if someone appears to need help, reach out to them.
- Practice mindfulness. Professor Paul Gilbert one of the world’s leading experts in compassion says that mindfulness can be used to develop an attitude of compassion at work.
- Here’s a Mindful practice from Compassion Life by HH The Dalai Lama to help you o your way:
Sit in a comfortable position. Take a few moments to pause and relax bringing your focus to your breath. Gently settle into a relaxing breathing rhythm.
Bring to mind a person or situation where you got angry, impatient, frustrated or seriously annoyed. Get a clear picture of the people in this situation and what they were doing that really bothered you…..
Now think of each person when they aren’t at work. Connect with them as another human being.
Picture them as a fellow human being with a family, pets, children, brothers and sisters… just like you
Think of them working to support their family and wanting to live happily…. just like you
Imagine them working as best they know how to work ….. just like you
Think of them having life challenges, fears, worries, insecurities….. just like you
Picture them trying to do their best with what they know to do…. just like you
Know they desire happiness and want to be free from suffering… just like you
Breathe deeply as you picture them with their family or neighbors enjoying life and being happy. Feel the wave of compassion in your body as you connect with your desire for their happiness.
We love to talk about all things compassion at work related at Positive Change Guru. Check out our forthcoming events or get in touch to find out more about our suite of courses and discuss bespoke compassion at work training for your organisation.