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What’s In a Compassionate Workplace?

September 28, 2018 | Filed in: Your Career

When we think about our ideal job, a few obvious things come to mind: fair compensation, opportunity for advancement, good work/life balance. But those benefits don’t just pop up out of nowhere—they come from an empathetic, understanding work environment. Read on to learn more about the essential features of a compassionate workplace. 

Think of the kind of office where you’d want to work. Chances are, it’s a place where you’re treated with respect, where you know your coworkers have your back, and where you don’t need to be perfect to be valued. In other words: a compassionate workplace. “This is the kind of place where people can be their whole selves,” says Monica Worline, research scientist at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and author of Awakening Compassion at Work. “It’s a culture where people who are having a tough time—either at work or outside of it—can bring it up and feel cared for.”

Not only does a compassionate workplace improve employee morale, it also comes with some pretty significant benefits to the company. “There’s a significant link between compassion and innovation,” says Worline. “When people feel safe at work and are treated with dignity and kindness after they fail at something, they are likelier to be innovative.”

Though the benefits are undeniable, many companies and industries lag behind in working to create such an environment for their employees. But compassionate workplaces can be built into existing work structures, with enough investment and support from employers and employees. How does one create a more compassionate culture in one’s own office? Start here:

1. Don’t ignore suffering:

At some point or another, an employee is going to be going through something that causes pain and sadness—and there’s no need to pretend that isn’t happening. “Think about the person and what they would appreciate most in that moment,” says Kristina Workman, PhD, an assistant professor of management at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. “Maybe it’s flowers or a sympathy card—even just telling the person you care and that you’re there for them can be good.” The same goes if something negative happens in the workplace, like a round of layoffs. “Downsizing can trigger sadness and grief in the remaining employees,” says Worline. “Instead of expecting everyone to just get right back to work, acknowledge that it’s okay for them to feel that way.”

2. Make it easy for employees to be compassionate to each other:

When a fellow employee is having a rough moment, people want to feel like they are able to help out. Bosses can help by giving employees the time (and place) to connect with each other: “When employees are super focused on completing tasks and meeting deadlines, they’re less likely to look around and see what’s going on with their coworkers,” says Jessica Worny Janicki, a certified executive and career coach based in Chicago. “There need to be breaks throughout the day so people can pick up on how others in the office are doing.”

Make sure employees know they aren’t expected to work nonstop by encouraging them to eat lunch away from their desks or take afternoon walks to get coffee together. These little moments give them the chance to see how their coworkers are feeling, which opens up opportunities for them to lend a hand. In addition to providing more time to connect, you’ll also need physical space in your office for both spontaneous and planned conversations. “Have common areas where people can bump into each other and chat, but also private rooms where they can have a heartfelt one-on-ones,” says Workman.

3. Have an effective open-door policy:

Don’t just say your door is always open to your employees—really mean it. “Employees want to feel like they can talk to you, so if they come into your office, let them sit down and open up without you doing other things or acting too busy,” says Workman. Nervous about what to say? Don’t be. “You don’t have to fix problems or change lives,” says Worline. “The action people appreciate most in the workplace is someone listening to them.”

4. Be flexible when you can:

This is all about giving employees the benefit of the doubt. Do you have someone who is always late to morning meetings? Instead of being annoyed, try to get to the bottom of why that person can’t show up on time. “It’s easy to just assume the worst of people—that they’re irresponsible or don’t care about the team—but try to keep an open mind about their behavior,” says Worline. You might find out the school bus picks their child up on the later side, so if you push the meeting back 15 minutes, they will always be on time.

5. Care about their physical comfort:

All of the above only goes so far if someone is miserable because the environment is noisy or sad looking. The good news: It doesn’t take much to create an office space that raises happiness levels and shows your employees you care about them as human beings. Research shows having plants around, private areas for employees to work in without a lot of outside noise, and pretty art on the walls can all help your team feel happier, more productive, and more creative.


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Alice Oglethorpe is a former magazine editor who is now a freelance writer based in Chicago. She writes about health and happiness in life and at work. Read more of Alice's posts.


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