How to have compassion at work?

Overworked and disillusioned? Depressed and sick of the rat race? Are your coworkers eyeing the clock as the end of the day approaches? Do you hear constant chatter of quitting for pastures new? We all know what a poor company workplace looks, feels and sounds like.

But it doesn’t have to be that way according to the book, Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organizations by Monica C. Worline. If you’re working or managing eight hours a day, five days a week, then that time in the office ought not to feel like a massive waste. Employees who are satisfied will work harder and be more efficient – and they’re also much more likely to stay put. In turn, companies will profit from higher productivity and lower turnover.

This is where compassion comes in. Businesses can be places where genuine camaraderie thrives; they can be workplaces where “solidarity” and “empathy” are not foreign concepts, but rather a key part of the business dynamic.

If you’re one of the many people who leave home to go to work each day, you know that, more often than not, putting up with nonsense and stress is just part of the job. Suffering through stress is such a common issue at work, it’s easy to forget that it’s a real problem.

It’s sad, but work can cause people to suffer unnecessarily. But some companies can and do minimize employees’ suffering – the answer lies in compassionate leadership.

During their research, the authors met a company leader called Andy. One day, during a meeting, he’d noticed that one of his best employees, Xian, was looking particularly despondent. So he asked Xian what was up.

Xian explained that his sister had died in an accident in China. But even though he was grieving, Xian had decided to still come to work.

In his position as a leader, Andy had to decide how to respect Xian’s personal life within a professional setting. He opted for compassion. Xian was told he could take whatever time off he needed and would be encouraged to speak with Andy any time he felt it was necessary. Andy even invited Xian to spend time at his home and meet his family.

This compassionate approach worked, and Xian was able to manage his grief successfully.

Business people are tough and tend to take hard-nosed approaches. But sometimes, showing compassion to workers isn’t just good for them as individuals; the business can ultimately reap the benefits.

Simply put, companies that value compassion will perform better. A Gallup poll, conducted soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, confirmed the essential place of compassion within a business. It showed that companies that were compassionate saw employees’ motivation and engagement levels rise sharply. Workers across the country had been affected by the attacks, and the companies that understood this fared better.

The companies that just wanted business to go on as usual soon found their employees disengaging, and in some cases even harming the work environment.

Another benefit to compassion is that it’s actually a potential source of innovation.

Let’s look at the work of Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy. He established an eye clinic in Southern India in 1977. His mission was to provide high-quality eye care, and he wanted to do it for large numbers of patients.

The business model he developed was remarkably simple: the patients would pay what they could afford. From one clinic, he was able to establish a whole franchise of Aravind Eye hospitals. By 2011, these hospitals were treating 7000 patients every day, and one-third of the treatments were performed pro bono.

In spite of the fact that the Aravind Eye hospitals were treating of much of their clientele for free, they remained profitable. That was because high-quality treatments continued to attract wealthier clients who could pay more, as well as the poorer patients.

Aravind Eye hospitals have received a lot of attention in the international press. Maybe other companies could be inspired by them and thus mirror their innovative model built on the power of compassion. This all demonstrates that a company will benefit if compassion is shown to customers and to employees.

So let’s dig down and come to grips with what compassion actually involves. The first stage involves the ability to perceive when someone is suffering.

But noticing suffering at work isn’t always as easy as you might think. So how do you actually set about doing so? After all, employees are hardly going to declare their problems to their employers at the top of their lungs.

The authors interviewed one employee, Dorothy, who was working for an insurance company. At the time, her husband was in hospital because of kidney failure – but she hadn’t told anyone about it. Instead, she started missing days at work, which was totally out of character. She soon found herself in danger of losing her job entirely because she was out of the office so frequently.

The problem was that Dorothy was ashamed she needed to take time off. Her logic was that she might lose her job if she started requesting leaves of absence.

This is exactly the sort of scenario when employers need to be aware of what’s going on. Dorothy went to her boss Sandeep, and told him that she didn’t know what to do. But Sandeep had already noticed Dorothy’s unusual absences. He could see she was flushed with embarrassment and was clearly exhausted.

Sandeep did the right thing. Instead of chastising her for missing so much time, he suggested Dorothy tell him exactly what the situation was, and why she hadn’t quite been her top-performing self in the previous few weeks.

The vital tools that are needed when you’re becoming compassionate in business are inquiry and curiosity. They’ll make it easier for you to spot suffering.

The truth is, when we see erratic behavior, we’re often far too quick to reach conclusions that, frankly, aren’t very compassionate.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Organizational researcher Reut Livne-Tarandach conducted a field study in camps for children whose parents had cancer. She discovered that it was essential for camp counselors to be curious about the children, and to regularly ask about their feelings. Crucially, she found that the camps that trained the counselors to inquire gently had less conflict between campers and counselors than those that didn’t.

The point is that company managers and leaders can use similar techniques and styles of inquiry to learn more about their employees’ feelings, and thus prevent suffering in the workplace.

Check out my related post: How Gratitude Can Change Your Life?

Interesting reads:


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