Working Through Covid-19 Taught Us Compassion. Let's Keep It Up

We've seen into each other's homes and private lives, surfing the highs and lows of lockdown together. Is work a kinder place as a result?

Work is no longer just work when you’re living through a pandemic. We can’t go back to the office, shop floor or workspace – those of us lucky enough to still have one – and pretend things are as they used to be. Because they’re not.

Some people have been made redundant, been furloughed, had freelance work cancelled. Others have worked through the chaos but struggled with isolation, stress and the work-from-home setup. Those with children have spent months trying to achieve the impossible: juggling work, childcare and homeschooling.

Some of us have lost family and friends to coronavirus. Others have fallen ill themselves and are on a long road to recovery. Many have been spared immediate grief, but feel the collective trauma that Covid-19 has wreaked.

If there is any silver lining to be found in this beast of a dark cloud, it has been rediscovering our collective capacity for compassion.

How many of us have stopped to smell the roses, listen to the birds? There’s been time for reflection, and time to ask our colleagues: “how are you, really?”

In doing so, we’ve shared honest answers about our mental health and the extreme highs and lows of isolation – rather than simply saying, “fine, thanks”.

And for those who’ve switched to remote working, the pandemic has offered a glimpse – through a screen – into our colleagues and clients’ home lives, too.

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We’ve been introduced to kids, partners and housemates. We’ve seen each other’s decor and bookcases. We’ve witnessed our workmates – and bosses – in their natural environment. There have been team meetings and work socials where we’ve actually spoken to each other as human beings, rather than being limited to perfunctory conversations at the tea station.

Where pre-lockdown, people had separate work and home personas, the lines are increasingly blurred – and enveloping us all is a constant reminder of what’s going on outside our windows. We’re united by a common enemy. No wonder some psychologists liken what we are experiencing in 2020 to the “wartime spirit”.

“When people are in crises like this, they do tend to band together,” said Marilyn Davidson, emerita professor of work psychology at the University of Manchester Business School. “I’m thinking of the Second World War. Terrible things happened then, people were threatened by death in the Blitz, but there was a great feeling of community and people would speak to each other in the street and help each other out.”

Once again, said Prof Davidson, we are experiencing “a common threat that has helped bring us together” – only this time with technology to connect us further.

If there’s one thing this pandemic has shown, it’s that people do want to help. In the first lockdown, a massive 600,000 people signed up to become NHS volunteer responders, with many more joining their local Covid mutual aid groups. And what’s happening in the community is happening in the workplace.

Compassionate workplaces are places where colleagues empathise with each other, genuinely care about their co-workers, and collectively muck in and help get the job done. There are many benefits to this way of working, said Prof Davidson: better team work, increased productivity, a decrease in levels of stress, and better leadership.

All of these can make the world of difference, especially for people with mental health problems. Joanna Earle, a PR and media manager from Kent, has borderline personality disorder and found the first few months of the pandemic hugely challenging. When the first lockdown began, she noticed a shift. Her colleagues were always compassionate, she said, but all of a sudden they were designating more time in their working weeks to connect and look out for each other.

“Everyone knows we are all in the same but different situations – we just try to support one another as best we can.”

- Joanna Earle, media manager

Her immediate team had daily check-ins, there were company check-ins every other day, and a weekly team meeting. They also held virtual work socials and were encouraged by leadership to exercise more, take walks during the day, and do yoga. “Just seeing people I work with helps a lot, in those meetings and doing quizzes too. It feels like we’re all back together for a bit,” Earle said.

“I think everyone knows we are all in the same, but different, situations – some people have kids, some are living alone, some hate working at home, some love it – so we all just try to support one another as best we can.

Earle’s story isn’t unique. Prof Davidson has heard from many people about a shift in their company’s work habits. One woman said her team’s virtual meetings and socials were something that had never happened in real life. They now bond over Zoom quizzes and glasses of wine, know more about each other’s lives, and agree things can’t go back to the work formality of old.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for organisations actually, and it will be a great shame if they miss this opportunity,” said Prof Davidson. “It makes economic sense as well as wellbeing sense.”

Can the kindness last?

Whether this sense of unity will hold once we return to some semblance of ‘normal’ is yet to be seen. Some people, like occupational psychologist Professor Chris Lewis, are sceptical that things will shift permanently for the better – given the threat of recession as the UK economy nose-dives.

In March and April this year, it shrank by a quarter. Prof Lewis believes that may have an impact on compassion at work, as redundancies and job losses fuel feelings of resentment and competition instead.

Others are more optimistic that we can keep up this culture of compassion and build on it. Professor Cary Cooper, an expert in psychology and health, doesn’t believe we can simply revert back to how we worked pre-pandemic. “Once the genie gets out of the bottle, I don’t think you can put it back in,” he said.

“We have learned that our colleagues are human beings – we know more about them, what’s going on in their families, what’s happening to them, how they’re feeling.”

- Professor Cary Cooper

Rushing around has been the default, and this period of reflection has given us a taste of what life could actually be like. “We have been so bottom-line orientated for so long, and we’ve been so busy and so inundated with emails and living a fast-paced life that I don’t think we have been as kind as we should’ve been in the past,” said Prof Cooper.

“I think all our kindness, compassion and empathy went out of the door as we worked 24/7. We are just inundated with information and that takes away from people spending personal disposable time with others.”

Lockdown has forced a physical change in the way we work, with far more of us working flexibly or remotely, in many cases for the foreseeable future. Where organisations were once averse to work from home setups – not trusting workers to get the job done and sure their employees wanted the social interaction of an office – they have now had to adapt to survive.

In the process, we’ve had something of an epiphany. We’ve realised who we care about: our family members, our friends, yes – but also our colleagues, people whose presence we have perhaps taken for granted for too long.

“We have learned we can work flexibly. We have learned that our colleagues are human beings – we know more about them, what’s going on in their families, what’s happening to them, how they’re feeling,” said Prof Cooper. “And I hope that gets transferred into the workplace of the future. I think it will.”

Leaders need to lead

Much of what happens next lies in the hands of our leaders and managers. We need bosses to have empathy and compassion, not just the technical skills to do the job, said Prof Cooper, especially with more of us working remotely, feeling the threat of job insecurity, and struggling with mental health.

After the first lockdown, two thirds of UK workers (65%) said they felt uncomfortable returning to work, according to employee experience company Qualtrics, which surveyed 2,000 people. These kinds of insights mustn’t be ignored – especially as we come out of a second lockdown.

People want to know that the workplace they’re heading back to is safe – and they want to be listened to if they express any concerns. They also want trust.

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“What’s been illustrated is that if you trust people and give them opportunities, they will work from home quite happily and, in fact, be often more productive because they’re not wasting up to two or three hours a day commuting,” said Prof Davidson at Manchester Business School. “What managers can do is to build on this long-term trust.”

Moving forward, she hopes to see more leaders empathising and caring about their employees, influencing them positively with verbal thank yous and reinforcing good work, rather than only bringing up the negatives.

Employees need to feel secure and valued within the work environment, that they belong and have support – “not just work support, but also social and psychological support from their colleagues and the management.”

Conduct an audit to get to the heart of issues at work, suggested Prof Cooper. Find out what employees think about the organisation, their working hours and line manager; and how they feel about pay, growth and opportunities for flexible working. This will identify issues such as a bullying management, for instance, or a long-hours culture that is impacting family life and childcare.

Next, take action. Choose a senior leadership team member and make it part of their job to focus on the wellbeing of the organisation and development of a strategy to improve it, he said. The audit results will guide them.

Gather your team, too. Psychotherapist Dr Aaron Balick believes companies should dissect what went right over the past few months of work and what went wrong. Ask questions. How might people work at home more or less? What kind of communication systems have or haven’t worked? How can we look after each other’s mental wellbeing? This is a real opportunity for positive change.

With the mental health impact of the pandemic weighing heavy, bosses need to be bringing emotional intelligence to the table, but also signpost support in the form of employee assistance programmes – even offering duvet days.

“We don’t want managers to become part-time counsellors and therapists,” said Dr Balick. “But we want them to learn the skills to be in a receptive space for listening to any struggles that colleagues have.”

Doing things differently

Some companies are already making big decisions to shun working “norms” – Twitter made a splash when it told employees they could work from home indefinitely, if they wished. But it’s not just big tech companies doing it.

Vhari Russell, founder of The Food Marketing Experts, an agency based near Cambridge, decided not to reopen her office after the first lockdown. As Russell, who is one of 12 staff, told HuffPost UK at the time: “This is the new normal and as an agency staffed predominantly by women, we are conscious of the additional demands associated with family life shouldered by our team. We wanted to ensure we avoid wasting time unnecessarily travelling, to and from the office, and make changes to improve the team’s mental health and work-life balance. As a business, we are also keen to reduce our impact on the environment.”

This approach won’t suit all employees. Moving to a 100% work-from-home model could actually be bad for collective mental health, said Prof Cooper, who added that face-to-face meetings foster empathy between bosses and employees – and between colleagues. For her part, Russell said her team are planning to have regular meet-ups in person and continue to use Whatsapp and Zoom for social, as well as work purposes.

Those still in work right now may well be craving job security – and therefore less likely to move. But if leaders don’t listen to their employees, they risk losing staff a year or two down the line, once the economy begins to recover – particularly in the case of millennials, who Prof Cooper describes as a “vital” workforce to the economy. “You lose them, you’re in trouble,” he said, pointing out that millennials won’t just sit in a job that makes them unhappy, where their parents and grandparents might have done.

Who’s on your team?

For years, organisations have been content with running workplaces that are built for, and made up of, people who walk, talk and look a certain way. There have been calls for change over the years, however progress has occurred in baby steps – if at all. The lockdown has allowed for a new way of thinking and working. It gives companies a real opportunity to change what happens next.

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For Paralympian and disability campaigner Liz Johnson, a compassionate workplace culture relies on employers continuing to embrace the option to work from home – which especially benefits disabled people or those with chronic illness – and committing to support diverse workforces. This means seating people at the table, and throughout the business, who are disabled, from a minority ethnic background, queer, female, older, younger.

“People have definitely had an increased awareness of just how difficult it can be to try and fit into a world that isn’t built for you,” said Johnson, of lockdown and the adjustment to remote working. She urges employers to hear from employees who are from diverse backgrounds before making decisions on how the new work setup will look.

“If it doesn’t impact you or you can’t see it, you don’t consider the long-term effects on others,” she said. ”Whilst there is a real opportunity to embrace this flexible working, or adaptive working, there’s also a danger that a lot of assumptions will be made. Also, in creating environments that are safe for the majority, what tends to happen is you make alterations for the majority’s world and the majority’s life.”

In doing so, the risk is that people who cannot fit into those norms lose out. “I would urge the people who are developing the new policies and procedures and ‘rules’, that they don’t just think about how we’re returning to society to what it was, but we look to see how we can emerge from this as a more authentically inclusive society,” Johnson added.

When the Black Lives Matter movement gathered momentum, there were renewed calls for workplaces to become actively anti-racist. It’s sorely needed – racism is a big problem in the UK, and the UK workplace, as much as some might deny it.

A survey by The University of Manchester last year found over 70% of ethnic minority workers had experienced racial harassment at work in the last five years, and around 60% said they’d been subjected to unfair treatment by their employer because of their race. Compassionate work cultures simply cannot exist if we allow racism, as well as homophobia, transphobia, sexism, ableism, ageism and other forms of discrimination, to exist within them. Leaders need to drive this out from the top down – and they need to start now.

“In a workplace that is compassionate, you see diversity. You know people are not just tolerating one another, but realise that together they are strong.”

- Anne Wafula Strike, Paralympian

Paralympian and campaigner Anne Wafula Strike has spoken out about the “appalling” lack of Black representatives on major UK sports boards. She told the BBC: “I am still the only Black person on these big boards. It just goes to show that the leadership isn’t doing what they are supposed to do. Or is the leadership biased? We need to start asking ourselves those questions. And if the leadership is biased, then what does that tell us about our community?”

A compassionate workplace is one where people from diverse communities or diverse groups form a key part of the team, Wafula Strike told HuffPost UK. Leaders need to be “looking around the demographic of the workplace right now and asking: where is the balance and where is the imbalance?”

We need to embrace a culture where we listen to our colleagues without judging them, she said, and nurture an atmosphere where colleagues and bosses check in on one another – encouraging work retreats, away days and designated spaces in workplaces to catch up informally will all help.

Wafula Strike’s vision of a compassionate workplace is one that’s relaxed but productive, and has good leadership in place to inspire and empower employees. This means actively helping people grow and rise up through the ranks in the business – regardless of what they look like or where they are from.

“In a workplace that is compassionate, you see diversity,” she added. “You know that these people are not just tolerating one another, but they realise that together they are strong.”