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  • Cynthia Johnson

Is their room for compassion at work?

Weddings require a lot of work and planning and navigating family dynamics.  Can you imagine what it must have been like for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex before their wedding! If you felt for them, especially her, during the weeks leading up to the big day, then you experienced compassion.

Research from the medical field shows that we are more willing to extend compassion to some people (patients) than others and in our own experiences we can probably see how this is so. In medicine for example, doctors find it harder to show compassion for patients who they think have contributed to their problems e.g. smokers.  As the saying goes, the Duchess can’t choose her family and as it wasn’t so much of her own making we perhaps felt more compassion for her.  In contrast, various members of the Australian cricket team received the modern equivalent of a public flogging after they were caught ball tampering though some were more vilified than others, largely depending on the perception of their culpability as well as their ability to admit it, (some would say self-flagellate.) And how about the public and commentator’s reactions to Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius’ performance in the Champion’s League final?  Was it his fault?  Is concussion the reason or the excuse?

Yet are they not all worthy of our compassion? Both the cricket example and the football example are of people who made a mistake, and haven’t we all?  When we start saying to ourselves “who hasn’t got some dysfunction in their family,” then we are expressing commonality or connection, a key component of compassion.

Compassion comes from the Latin compati meaning to suffer with.  Two of the scales on the Challenge of Change course measure detached compassion which refers more to the ability to accept and notice the suffering of others without becoming overly emotionally involved or attached to their suffering.

I think we can probably all think of examples where our organisation or our colleagues have shown compassion for others. Our workplaces may provide sponsorship of charities, or do work in the community, or we may cook for our colleague’s families when they are ill in hospital. Just as our programmes talk about ‘everyday’ stress, we also talk about ‘everyday’ compassion.

Everyday compassion is the acceptance that there are some people at work who are struggling.  Their work load is high and they are falling behind, they don’t feel like they belong, they don’t like how their job is changing, they have lost their confidence, they have made a mistake, they have been given a warning.

Two pieces of research suggest that the demonstration of compassion in the workplace can have benefits. In a 16-month study of caregivers in a retirement village, team members, independent observers and family members of the person in care were asked to record evidence of compassionate behaviours amongst the caregiving team members. Teams who interacted compassionately with one another had less absenteeism, were less likely to report burnout, reported greater job satisfaction, and were happier with team work. The independent observers and family members observation of compassion amongst team members was correlated with better resident mood, fewer resident trips to the emergency department, and better family satisfaction with the care.

In a study of firefighters, units were either identified as having a predominantly jovial workplace culture or a compassionate one, or a mixture. Jovial cultures had quicker response times and showed more risk taking behaviours while in compassionate workplace cultures, or when jovial cultures were tempered with compassion, there were fewer vehicle accidents and damage to property, and they reported fewer health and well-being problems e.g. headaches, indigestion, fatigue, etc. One critical difference between the two cultures that the research identified was the willingness to acknowledge and talk about emotions as a way of debriefing, diffusing emotions, and as a way of offering and receiving collegial care.  This was no surprise to the researchers nor is it to the Challenge of Change course participants.

We anticipate that as more demands are placed on employees – we work longer hours, the talent shortage isn’t relieved, more reporting is required, our workplaces face more legal obligations, we commute further, - we will hear more talk about compassion in the work place and we are adjusting some of the content of some of our programmes to reflect this.

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