Have you ever dreaded going into work because the people around you were in a negative spiral of energy? We are emotional beings and we can’t help but be affected by the varying moods and interactions we have with others. Life is always changing and this constant change can create difficult thoughts and emotions, which can flow into the workplace. The silver lining is that if we can meet suffering at work with concern and care, compassion naturally arises. Work environments that cultivate compassion create a much more positive and productive place to work.
We can experience a variety of difficulties at work. Organizational actions may trigger suffering like job loss and downsizing. It was found in a study that downsizing unsettles people who lose their jobs and distresses survivors who are concerned about their colleagues’ losses, along with their own job security (Mishra et al. 2009). Suffering at work may arise from events in an individual’s personal life, including marital or relationship difficulties, a child’s special needs, divorce, or loss of a family member.
When distressed employees received acts of compassion like emotional support, time off from work, or flowers, they demonstrated more positive emotions such as joy and contentment, and had greater commitment toward their workplace organization.
Compassion is an interpersonal process involving the ability to notice, feel, or perceive another person’s pain and to be with or take action to alleviate that person’s suffering. Over the last 6 years, Jane Dutton at the University of Michigan has studied an array of organizational settings (hospitals, universities, and businesses like Macys and Cisco). She found that when distressed employees received acts of compassion like emotional support, time off from work, or flowers, they demonstrated more positive emotions such as joy and contentment, and had greater commitment toward their workplace organization. These results existed regardless of whether employees received compassion directly or merely witnessed it.
As a consultant supporting workplaces to be healthy and mindful, I teach and encourage compassion for oneself and others in the workplace. When mindfulness (paying attention to the present moment) and compassion are present, they support greater stress resiliency. Stress inevitably spills into the workplace and this often contributes to less productivity and higher health care costs, but with a dose of compassion, we can bounce back from the ups and downs of life with strength and greater ease. Below are some tips that I have encouraged and research also supports.
Compassion in Action At Work
- Take greater notice of your fellow employees’ psychological well-being. For example: If an employee has experienced a loss, such as a divorce or death in the family, someone should contact that employee within 24-48 hours and offer help. Melwani et al. (2012) demonstrated that people who act compassionately are perceived more strongly as leaders and that perceived intelligence (i.e., how clever and knowledgeable the person is) bridges the relationship between compassion and leadership.
- Encourage and display more positive contact among employees. In many workplaces where I consult, there are meeting spaces that can be utilized for informal groups and gatherings. Planned groups can be encouraged weekly or monthly and allow for more opportunities to notice when someone needs help or support and then to offer it.
- Invite more authenticity and open communication in the workplace. If we can keep the communication lines open with respect and kindness, we allow for time to talk about what may need attention and/or empathic connection.
- Take on the perspective of the other person. In other words, this person is “just like me.” This is also known as “cognitive empathy,” or simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. This type of empathy can help in negotiating or motivating people to give their best effort.
- Start with self-compassion. In order to truly have compassion for others, we must have compassion for ourselves.
Recall a time in the last few days when you experienced some difficulty. Invite compassion towards yourself with these simple phrases.
As you breathe in and out, repeat these phrases as many times as needed. If it is challenging to offer compassion towards yourself, imagine someone who has love for you saying the words below:
May I, you be free from sorrow and pain
May I, you find ease in this struggle
May I, you find peace and healing
May I, you find openness of heart
In the Blooming Lotus online course, we practice mindfulness and well being in daily life. The focus for September is compassion and we would love to have you practice with us.
What if you went to work in a place where you felt trust, compassion, and enthusiasm? Practice more compassion towards yourself and others and let me know how it goes.
- Dutton JE, Lilius JM, Kanov JM. 2007. The transformative potential of compassion at work. In Handbook of Transformative Cooperation: New Designs and Dynamics, ed. SK Piderit, RE Fry, DL Cooperrider, pp. 107–26. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press
- Dutton JE, Ragins BR, eds. 2007. Exploring Positive Relationships at Work: Building a Theoretical and Research Foundation. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.
- Mishra AK, Mishra KE, Spreitzer GM. 2009. Downsizing the company without downsizing morale. MIT Sloan Manag. Rev. 50(3):39–44
- Melwani S, Mueller JS, Overbeck JR. 2012. Looking down: the influence of contempt and compassion on emergent leadership categorizations. J. Appl. Psychol. 97(6):1171–85