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Six Good Reasons to Create a Compassionate Workplace

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A recent Gallup poll revealed that just 13% of the world's employees are engaged at work. About a quarter are 'actively disengaged' - unhappy, unproductive and liable to spread negativity to their colleagues. These statistics were fresh in my mind when I took part in a conference in London to explore the benefits of creating a culture of compassion at work.

My role was to introduce and interview the speakers - leading business professors, consultants, psychologists, scientists, teachers, healthcare professionals and others who have been studying compassion and how it can transform companies and organisations.

Before you start picturing boardroom sing-alongs and group hugs around the water cooler, let's define a compassionate workplace as follows: a work environment where people feel valued and supported, and are encouraged to develop their skills and reach their full potential.

Here are six things I learned about why this matters:

1. Stress is bad for business

Work-related stress cost the UK economy an estimated £6.5bn last year. In the United States, the cost was around $300bn. It's impossible to avoid some degree of stress at work, of course. But when bosses are aggressive or demand the impossible, employees compete rather than collaborate, and we fear failure rather than being motivated to succeed, employers pay the price with more sick days, lower productivity and high turnover rates.

2. Compassion boosts the bottom line

Keeping employees happy is not just an irritating distraction from the serious business of making money. Richard Barrett, a leadership consultant who advocates a values-driven approach in organisations, looked at Fortune magazine's annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For. Over a ten-year period to July 2012, he tracked the share price growth of the top 40 publicly traded companies on the list. They showed average annualised returns of 16.4%, compared to 4.1% for the S&P 500 index - and they bounced back quicker from the 2008 global economic meltdown.

It's not always about profits, of course. In workplaces where care and compassion are (or should be) the primary focus, like hospitals, nursing homes and schools, a supportive environment is just as beneficial.

3. Givers come out on top

Adam Grant, the highest-rated professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, has been studying workplace interactions for over a decade. He identifies three types of colleagues: 'givers', who enjoy helping others and do so with no strings attached; 'matchers', who give but ask for something in return; and 'takers', who want as much as possible and never give anything back.

According to Grant, the highest proportion of those who make it to the top are givers. Although there are also more givers at the bottom, the givers who make it, make it big. The secret of their success is to be compassionate without losing sight of their own objectives, and without allowing their time and goodwill to be exploited by the takers.

4. Compassion makes us happier and healthier

Scientific research shows that kindness and compassion have a surprising range of benefits. For example, doing something good for others is like eating a piece of chocolate - it activates the 'pleasure centres' in our brain. One study even found that we get the same kind of buzz when we see someone else giving to charity as when we receive money ourselves.

People who lead a life of greater compassion, meaning and purpose seem to enjoy lower levels of inflammation at the cellular level, and a compassion or service-based lifestyle also seems to act as a buffer against the effects of stress.

5. Kindness is contagious

When we see people doing something good for others, we're inspired to emulate them. In one study involving a 'public-goods game' where people had the opportunity to cooperate with each other, when one person gave money to help others, the recipients were more likely to give away their own money in future games. This created a ripple effect that had an impact three degrees of separation away from the original act of kindness.

As the psychologist and author Daniel Goleman points out, we have 'mirror neurons' in our brain that "make emotions contagious", so every interaction counts.

6. Everyone wins

Emma Seppala, a compassion and altruism researcher at Stanford University who has advised companies like Google, Facebook and Hallmark, says: "Organisations that are more compassionate and happier, healthier places to work have employees with lower heart rate and blood pressure, and stronger immunity. Compassionate and pro-social employees build better relationships with each other, their productivity is better and they create a better atmosphere. As a consequence those organisations see lower employee turnover and increased customer service, as well as increased loyalty, which at the end of the day is what they are looking for."

Part two coming soon: How to create a compassionate workplace

Andy Fraser was at the Empathy and Compassion in Society conference

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