• Managing people

Actively Fostering Compassion at Work

8 lessons to help create a workplace culture where compassion is embedded into systems and practices, and where individuals are treated with dignity and care

Tuesday 28 January 2020


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A common concern for all of us is that our societies appear to be becoming fractured. Opinions are polarized, people are increasingly isolated, and loneliness and mental health make regular headline news. In this difficult and changing landscape, the workplace has the potential to be a sanctuary for many. A place where employees display kindness, care and understanding of one another as human beings and compassion predominates.

In this ideal scenario, individuals benefit and so too do organizations—as happy employees will be more engaged and collaborative and work teams consequently more productive. Unfortunately, many workplaces, rather than being conducive to making close human connections, can be characterised by a lack of human-to-human empathy; by stress-related absenteeism, disengagement, and burnout.

In a competitive business world, the drive to develop the skills needed to meet short-term agendas and focus on maximising profit has mitigated against fulfilling core human needs of safety, companionship and care .

As we move into a world disrupted by artificial intelligence, where humans will be released from repetitive work, it is likely that there will be a new emphasis on creativity and collaboration and the power of human-to-human connections. This is why a focus now on bringing compassion into the workplace should be a priority.

Given that one in three people are likely to face challenges to their mental health during their working life, it is incumbent on leaders and HR professionals to actively foster compassion at work. Based on my research here are my eight lessons to help actively foster compassion in the workplace:

Lesson 1: Start at the top

An organization’s culture is set by its senior leaders and by displaying compassionate behaviour they can set the emotional tone. For example, leaders should get to know people regardless of their level and be seen to prioritize employee well-being. They should not be afraid to show their own vulnerability too.

Lesson 2: Line managers are pivotal

Management style is one of the most common causes of employee stress and disengagement. The extent to which line managers can enable each of their employees to fulfil his or her potential in terms of engagement, commitment, creativity and performance is linked to their ability to respond to employee’s personal difficulties with compassion.

Lesson 3: Everyone is different

To accommodate people’s different personalities, life circumstances and ways of coping, managers and HR policies should be flexible. For example, allowing individuals to take time off and to choose their own point of return. If they are treated as adults, most people will return to work within a reasonable time. At the same time, it is important to be transparent and for any decisions that are taken to suit an individual’s circumstances, to be seen to be fair by their colleagues, since the way one individual is treated can shape the way all employees view their employer.

Lesson 4: Work is coping

During difficult times when their life is otherwise in disarray, people can find much-needed structure and routine at work. Work can help them cope. However, individuals are unlikely to be performing at their best in these circumstances. While a natural response is to become frustrated and express dissatisfaction, managers are better advised to work at suspending judgment and to instead ask questions with care and curiosity. Try to uncover the underlying reasons for a dip in performance, and respond appropriately.

Lesson 5: Back to work, not business as usual

After an employee has taken an extended leave of absence due to personal upheaval, it is important for managers to adjust the person’s workload and remain sensitive to any underlying signs of distress once they return. At the same time managers need to consider the impact of the absence on other team members and be clear about what they expect from them, as well as how they are rewarded for extra work, and how they are treated once the individual is back to full capacity.

Lesson 6: Say the right thing

When others are suffering it can be difficult or embarrassing to know the right thing to say. Instead of worrying about the ‘right’ words, colleagues should instead be available to listen without judgment. This has been found to greatly support an individual’s healing. Sometimes, individuals just need a sounding board. Colleagues do not have to feel it is their responsibility to solve the individual’s problems. Colleagues can become friends and confidantes by just letting individuals know they are there and available should they ever need to talk.

Lesson 7: Get trained up

Dealing with employee’s personal difficulties is an unavoidable part of a managerial role, yet management training often lacks the practical content required to help managers develop the necessary skills. HR professionals should consider offering training across a range of topics from handling redundancy to breaking difficult news. When it comes to self-compassion and the importance of spotting signs of potential burnout, companies should consider offering well-being training for their executives.

Lesson 8: Make a safe space

Once aware of an individual’s struggles, line managers should look beyond a one-off conversation and continue to create the time and space for confidential non-work conversations. Managers may learn to pick up on signs of distress by getting to know their staff at a more intimate level, where details of their home life are shared. This requires a relationship of trust, with trust being built when the manager themselves talks about their own personal life and challenges at home. Dr Amy Bradley

Hult Ashridge Executive Education helps organizations around the world improve their leadership talent, strategic thinking and organizational culture.

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