Compassion at work

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By Ruby Ubhi (Managing Director, Rubhi Leadership & Organisational Development)

Imagine a workplace where people feel valued enough to bring their authentic self to work, they are understood and  supported by others, they are included and appreciated when sharing their voice, they have fun while hard working together, and their professional relationships are built on a foundation of mutual respect and trust. For me, this is compassion at work at its best. It’s also something I have been lucky enough to experience more than once, reminding me that it’s not an idealistic view of the workplace; it’s an attainable reality that’s available to us all.

Compassion and empathy are often conflated, and can be classed as ‘soft stuff’ in the workplace that we’ll get to once the real work is done. Making the distinction is important if we are to understand how empathy and compassion can benefit people and organisations. Empathy is when we feel with another by connecting with a similar emotion or experience within ourselves. Feeling and connecting with another requires us to be vulnerable. Compassion builds on this connection, and urges us to take action that will make a positive difference. This action could be big or small. Both require vulnerability and courage, and for this reason I would argue they are in fact the ‘hard stuff’ of the workplace.

Why is compassion in the workplace important?

On average we can spend anything up to and beyond 37.5 hours at work, we often take work home which also includes thinking about it, and we can even commute for 2 hours or more a day just to get to and from work. That’s a lot of time, and a lot of life spent each week at work and on work related activities. We also know from research, and our personal experiences, that work and the workplace impact our mental and physical health and wellbeing. Statistics and studies also show us how organisations can struggle to manage absenteeism, staff sickness and turnover, all of which effective productivity and efficiency.

Will a compassionate work place fix all of these problems? Probably not, but it’s a powerful start. Developing and sustaining compassionate cultures in our teams and workplaces is an important step towards valuing others as well as valuing ourselves. This doesn’t mean investing huge amounts of money in staff wellbeing programmes. Small acts of compassion can make a big difference, and like with any culture change consistency helps to sustain the desired outcome. We also need to understand and assess just how compassionate/uncompassionate ways of working and ways of being are, as well as how our behaviours and interactions impact those around us. It requires us to be human with ourselves in order to be human with others, so no matter how difficult the task people want to come to work and they feeling valued, included and appreciated when they do.

Leadership is key

Leaders play a powerful role in developing and sustaining compassionate workplaces. Studies show us that Leaders set the tone, and implicitly and explicitly role model how we treat others and ourselves at work. When leaders consider their own wellbeing, even making sure they take a break while at work, they make it acceptable and easier for others to do the same. Leaders and managers also need to consider how authentic and consistent the messages they send out to staff are. On one hand leaders can encourage staff to take care of their wellbeing whilst still putting pressure on them to meet tight deadlines or unrealistic workloads, meaning people don’t have time to take a break or even eat lunch.

Research also shows there is a relationship between how staff perceive their managers/leaders and how they feel, physically and mentally themselves. Perceived poor managerial leadership increases the amount of sick leave taken and the risk of sickness amongst employees later on in life. It’s no surprise then that a study of work attitudes and what Britain’s workforce values found that good relationships with colleagues, enjoying the job role and having a good relationship with your manager were the top 3 reasons why people stayed in a job role.  It also found that staff value a happy workplace, and that they would prefer a happier work place over a higher salary – although I am pretty sure both would be welcome.

Compassionate and happier work places make a difference to how we feel and how we perform at work, and leaders can shape this. Developing and sustaining compassionate cultures, where people not only want to come to work but also feel valued when doing so can seem quite daunting. If we remember that our organisations are networks of human relationships, then with courage and vulnerability leaders at all levels can build and sustain relationships that are both meaningful and productive. And just like others relationships we have in life, its the small stuff that can make a big difference.

Here are some resources you can explore to get you started:

Compassion at Work Toolkit: https://oscarkilo.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Compassion-at-Work-Toolkit-FINAL-5-December-2017.pdf

Wellbeing at Work Report 2017: https://wellbeing.bitc.org.uk/all-resources/research-articles/mental-health-work-report-2017

Poor leadership poses a health risk at work: https://ki.se/en/news/poor-leadership-poses-a-health-risk-at-work

Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) - study on work attitudes: https://www.aat.org.uk/about-aat/press-releases/britains-workers-value-companionship-recognition-over-big-salary