How to show compassion at work

When you’re under pressure at work, it can be all too easy to develop tunnel vision and ignore what’s going on around you.

Written by Catriona MacLeod
Published 03 February 2021
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How to show compassion at work

Regardless of how stressed you may find yourself, it’s important to remain compassionate and remember the people you work with. 

Why compassion matters

Making time for your colleagues, to ask how they’re doing or even just grab a cup of coffee, can have significant benefits for their mental health and general wellbeing.  

It’s been well proven that compassion in the workplace can also have a rewarding effect on productivity and is crucial to maintaining morale, teamwork and customer satisfaction. Links have even been made between compassion and faster recovery from illnesses, which leads to less absenteeism – yet another benefit for organizations. [1] [2]  

How to cultivate compassion 

Here are just a few ways you can help to foster a culture of compassion in your workplace: 

Get to know your colleagues 

Though it may seem obvious, people like to feel that they are part of a team and have a connection with others. We spend a significant part of our lives at work but how much do you really know about the people you work with? If the answer is “not that much,” it’s worth taking some time to find out a bit more about your colleagues, their hobbies, preferences and what really makes them tick.  

Be curious. Ask questions and really get to know each other, whether your colleagues sit across the desk from you, or they work across the globe. Even a simple question like “What did you do this weekend?” can give you insights into what matters to them and what they may have going on. This can help you to establish stronger team bonds, and shows that you care about the people you work with.  

Social events like a team lunch (if appropriate) or a fun online game or quiz can also be a good way to build relationships, and create a sense of community.  

Be aware of changes in behavior 

One benefit of getting to know your colleagues a little better is that you should be able to spot changes in their mood or general wellbeing that might signal something is wrong. Look out for unexplained changes in behavior, such as an increased frequency of sick days, a lack of motivation or general fatigue, which may suggest a colleague is struggling.  

It’s important, however, not to speculate too much. Licensed therapist, Anna Ranieri, says that although “it’s human nature to try to find a pattern and to label it’,’ it’s also important not to jump to conclusions over a colleague’s behavior "because most of us aren’t trained to diagnose someone.” [3] 

Be prepared to ask if something is wrong 

The best way to find out if something is wrong is simply to ask, but bear in mind that it’s important to remain sensitive to the other person. Don’t pry; perhaps the issue is quite personal and they don’t feel comfortable discussing it. Ask if they’re OK, and if there’s anything you can do to help. If they don’t want to talk about it, just let them know you’re there if they need you.  

If the issue is fairly obvious – for instance, a colleague is stressed due to the pressure of a tight deadline – offering to give them a hand with their workload may be all the help they need. Little gestures like this can make a huge difference when needed most. 

Listen 

Sometimes people just need to vent or to express their problems out loud. “A problem shared is a problem halved” may sound clichéd. But taking the time to listen to a frustrated colleague can help them get things off their chest, refocus and work out what they need to do next.  

Create a caring atmosphere 

While it’s likely that, from time to time, employees will struggle at work, helping to create and cultivate an open and accepting work space can help individuals to speak freely about any issues affecting them.  

In 2017, an email chain went viral after web developer Madalyn Parker contacted her colleagues to inform them that she would be using two sick days to focus on her mental health. In response, the CEO of the company, Ben Congleton, thanked her for being an example and helping to “cut through the stigma.” [4] In doing so, he was setting an important example himself. 

How to show compassion remotely 

With many of us working in virtual settings right now, it can be harder to pick up on signs that a colleague may be struggling. On video calls, pay particular attention to your team members’ facial expressions and body language – do they suggest something different to what they’re saying? [5] If you’re on the phone, tone of voice can similarly give you a sense of how people are really feeling.  

If you’re a people manager, it’s vital that you create the conditions for open communication. You can do this by: [6] 

  • Setting up a very quick weekly meeting, where people can talk about life, rather than just work.  

  • Scheduling in regular one-on-ones with team members – and sticking to them. 

  • Letting team members know when and how to reach out to you with any worries or concerns. 

If a team member comes to you for advice or support, respond quickly and suggest a virtual meeting to discuss the issue – but be sure to take their communication preferences on board. 

Key points 

A more considerate, compassionate workplace could well be one of the keys to a happier, healthier workforce. Just a few simple gestures can make a world of difference to yourself or colleagues. If you’re struggling, or you think you may know somebody who is struggling, remember that it’s good to talk. 
 
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Resources

[1] Amy Morin, ‘Introducing a little compassion to your workplace culture has big benefits’ (24 June 2015). Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2015/06/24/introducing-a-little-compassion-to-your-workplace-culture-has-big-benefits/#13d209734370 (accessed 14 July 2017). 

[2] Knowledge@Wharton, ‘Why fostering a culture of ‘companionate love’ in the workplace matters’ (02 April 2014). Available at: http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/fostering-culture-compassion-workplace-matters/  
(accessed 14 July 2017). 

[3] Amy Gallo, ‘When you’re worried about a colleague’s mental health’ (18 December 2015). Available at: https://hbr.org/2015/12/when-youre-worried-about-a-colleagues-mental-health (accessed 13 July 2017). 

[4] Jennifer Calfas, ‘Meet the CEO whose comments about mental health in the workplace went viral’ (11 July 2017). Available at: http://time.com/money/4853305/mental-health-workplace-olark-madalyn-parker-ben-congleton/?utm_campaign=time&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_medium=social&xid=time_socialflow_twitter (accessed 13 July 2017). 

[5] Bea Potter, ‘7 steps to managing remote workers With Empathy and Compassion’ (12 May 2020). Available at: https://giveandtakeinc.com/blog/leadership/7-steps-to-managing-remote-workers-with-empathy-and-compassion/ (accessed 02 February 2021). 

[6] Skye Rodgers, ‘Developing Empathy for Others in a Remote Job’ (02 July, 2020). Available at: https://www.virtualvocations.com/blog/covid-19/developing-empathy-remote-job/  (accessed 02 February 2021). 

About the author

Catriona MacLeod

Catriona MacLeod

Editorial Manager
Catriona has over 19 years of experience in editorial management. She works with clients across a wide range of sectors to deliver relevant and practical resources to meet the learning needs of leaders and managers. Catriona loves the variety of her role, from writing and editing content to conducting video interviews with industry experts.

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