We live in tumultuous times which can create an added layer of uncertainty for employees who need to build relationships with students, patients or clients. Providing calm, confident and warm emotional labour can be difficult for people experiencing burnout, grief or compassion fatigue.
Workplace culture has emerged as a critical element to prevent burnout and support employees experiencing emotional distress.
Organizations that promote a sense of collective compassion — by supporting noticing, feeling and acting on the suffering of others at the workplace — may see improvements in both employee performance and job satisfaction.
Compassionate work culture
The emotions of sympathy, empathy and compassion play an important role in developing a compassionate work culture, by helping us pay attention, in professionally appropriate ways, to the suffering of our students, patients, clients, colleagues, managers and leaders.
Sympathy — the superficial recognition of the distress of another individual — is the first step towards developing a compassionate workplace. It helps us notice the suffering of others.
The emotion of empathy compels us to take the time and attention to investigate and understand the response of the individual in distress. Compassion is noticing, feeling and then acting on the suffering of others.
Workers’ acknowledgement and response to these emotions vary according to their professional duties and boundaries. But compassionate action can make the difference at the workplace, whether through small moments of kind interpersonal interaction or sustained collective effort to address complex and multifaceted challenges.
Responding to co-workers
An example of how these emotions help to create a compassionate workplace would be the familiar case of a person struggling with a new software program, such as an expense reporting system.
A sympathetic response by a colleague would be to notice that a co-worker is spending too much time inputting their expenses into the management system, and to say, “The new system is tricky! Good luck!” and then walk away.
Empathy would prompt the colleague to seek to understand what the co-worker was already doing (rather than jumping in with an immediate solution) so that the colleague can figure out the origin of the frustration. Empathetic listening takes time.
Having felt similarly frustrated, the colleague may feel compassion and feel compelled to act by scheduling time during the next reporting period to sit with and help the co-worker complete their expense submission. If, through empathetic listening and compassionate action, further action is warranted, the colleague may offer to raise the problem as a larger systemic issue related to software training with management.
Compassion in action
Building an organizational culture that encourages compassion requires employers and employees to create time and space for listening. The cause of a person’s distress, whether displayed in the workplace or not, can be complex, multi-faceted and not easily solved.
Compassion satisfaction, or the joy and pleasure of providing care to others, provides the caregiver with the long-term fortitude to help others.