Creating A Compassion Contagion

It’s that time of year when common colds and the flu virus begin to spread. Every fall/winter there’s a major stir and worry for catching something that knocks you out for days or weeks. Given the personal manner of transmittal, one effect may be minimized contact in the office and distance from our colleagues, which is already on a downturn in our global, virtual work world.

What if, instead, we focused on a different kind of contagion; one that we actually hoped would spread? What if it spread like wild fire around the company and the outcomes were enhanced productivity and increased positivity? I’m talking about compassion. I believe there is a compelling argument for developing an atmosphere of compassion in the workplace and motivating employees to have a “sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it,” as Merriam-Webster defines it.

So what kinds of distress might individuals encounter that may surface as they try to go about their daily responsibilities?

  • Physical pain or trauma
  • Psychological and emotional distress
  • Grief and anguish
  • Feelings of disconnection

These maladies come from a mixture of personal suffering brought from home and professional stress created at work and end up costing companies billions of dollars. Whether from caring for a sick or dying family member, relationship troubles, chronic pain, mental illness, or from co-worker incivility, duress from managers, or responsibility overload, these stresses take their toll.

How do we benefit from exuding compassion in the office?

Forbes, Huffington Post, Stanford University and Harvard Business Review are among the many publications that have shared results of bringing compassion to work. Findings on the benefits show that compassion:

  • Increases employee health and well-being
  • Decreases attrition
  • Improves employee engagement and productivity
  • Reduces inefficiencies
  • Lessens interpersonal tensions

What are the 3 steps to compassion?

  1. First, recognize suffering in ourselves and others.
  2. Second, demonstrate empathy, put ourselves in the shoes of the other, and be able to understand the distress as our own.
  3. Third, take action to help relieve the suffering. In the case of practicing self-compassion, we become fully aware of our own suffering, feel concern for ourselves, and take a step to lessen our distress.

Let’s consider an example in the workplace.

Imagine your co-worker has shared that he is taking care of elderly parents, one of whom becomes ill. To practice compassion, you would acknowledge that they may be stressed and upset, listen to their woes, offer emotional support, and talk about your own understanding or experience of the situation if it is true for you. Finally, you might offer to have lunch together or go for a walk to provide space for a distraction and a friendly ear. You may also provide dinners or run errands to lessen their household burdens. With generosity (and if company policy allows), you could share sick-time if they have used theirs up.

In addition to your own sense of worth and satisfaction from providing compassion, you may foster a quicker recovery for your co-worker from their duress. You might inspire a “compassion spiral,” in which those who have received compassion from colleagues, in turn give compassion to others. And displays of positive emotions through compassion beget more positivity, thus spreading like a virus throughout the workplace, expanding good feelings about the organization as a whole and connecting us all to our common humanity. An important note of caution: some people prefer privacy and a clear separation between work and home life so be mindful of how you broach a sensitive subject and be certain that they are open to your good intensions.

No doubt when the opportunity arises to provide support to a colleague who is in distress, and you choose a compassionate route, you will witness the ripple effect.


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