Discussing suffering in the workplace

Most of us will spend at least 100,000 hours of our lives at work. During that time, we will experience episodes of personal suffering, such as grief or loss.

HealthySteps to Wellness spoke with Monica Worline, PhD, a collaborating scientist with Stanford’s The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, and the co-author (with Jane Dutton) of Awakening Compassion at Work. Worline dispels common myths, outlines the benefits of reconsidering our silence and advocates for the creation of more compassionate systems.

Why should we break the silence about suffering at work?

There are several myths about our effectiveness in the workplace, including this major one: If we allow our emotions into the workplace, we will somehow undermine our capacity to get things done.

However, what we’re learning as we study more about compassion at work is that the opposite is often true.

When people try so hard to suppress suffering and keep it out of their workplaces, they actually exacerbate their suffering and make it difficult for the people around them to support them and help them in ways that could actually enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the entire organization. We have such strong norms about suppressing emotions that we lose the capacity to see and respond to that suffering in ways that will create more flexibility, smooth out coordination, eliminate errors, and help people from being distracted and overwhelmed. By not addressing suffering at work, we are actually creating the very inefficiencies that the myths of the emotionless workplace were designed to negate.

Most of us have been taught to separate our personal lives from our work lives, which results in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” environment. When is it appropriate to acknowledge a co-worker’s suffering?

It’s important to define limits; I am not advocating that there should be no separation between work life and home life. Bringing all your problems to work with you is not advised; there are appropriate segmentations and boundaries.

The sociological research shows that different people have different preferences for how they separate their work and home life. An important aspect of developing good relationships with people is learning more about their boundaries between work and home and how much they like them to overlap (or not).

However, when we studied the factor of suffering at work, we discovered that many of us are often so worried about invading someone’s privacy, or about intruding into someone’s outside life, that we don’t even ask the simplest kinds of questions such as, “You know, you seem really quiet this week and that’s not like you; is everything okay?” Or, “Is there anything you want talk about?” Or, “Is there any way I could support you?” General questions such as these, or simple observations when someone seems a bit off, are very important techniques — because they allow the person some space to share. Of course, a person can decline sharing if they’d prefer not to (or if nothing is happening). However, if something is going on in their life and they realize it is apparent to people, it creates space for them to reveal it. When this happens, compassionate responses can result — a powerful way to improve relationships among colleagues.

Are you suggesting that merely talking about the suffering, even if you can’t really “fix” the person’s situation, is in and of itself a great help?

That’s exactly right! Many managers, supervisors or coworkers have this fear of offering compassion in the workplace; they are afraid the person will open up and start talking about something that is so big that they won’t be able to assist. However, you can help alleviate the pain merely by being “present” with the person — listening to them and offering them a sense that they are not alone. It is remarkable what kind of difference offering a kind word or a simple moment of flexibility can make to people who are in pain, even when you’re not remedying the underlying condition that’s causing the pain.

The more we can dispel the fear (“If I can’t fix the other person’s suffering, then I shouldn’t talk about it all”), the more we allow for compassion to enter into our workplaces and our lives.

What small thing can I do today to make my workplace more compassionate?

Oh, I love that question. One small thing that we know absolutely creates more openness and compassion in the workplace is establishing high-quality connections.

A high-quality connection, which is different than a long-term relationship, is a momentary human-to-human connection characterized by:

1. mutuality – you’re both in the connection together
2. positive regard – you’re expressing a positive human regard for the other person
3. a sense of vitality

These characteristics can be expressed through nonverbal communication — body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and eye contact. They can happen instantaneously. At work, we have many fleeting moments when we brush by other people or have quick interactions in which we have the opportunity to create high-quality connections. Our research indicates that the more high-quality connections there are, the more compassionate the overall workplace becomes.

 … any final thoughts?

I would encourage readers to think about behaviors they can change and enhance both on an individual level and also on a workplace level. Whether it is just a single one-on-one interaction, or an adjustment to a workplace system or routine, compassion can enter our workplaces — and result in greater well-being and higher work productivity.


Interview conducted by Julie Croteau and edited by Lane McKenna.
February 2017