Our workplaces are becoming increasingly dehumanized. This may be, in part, down to a deeply ingrained belief that pressure ignites performance. Many organizations are so focused on rewarding productivity and output that they have become obsessed with profit over people. We are so busy ‘doing’ that many of us have no time to care for ourselves, let alone our colleague down the corridor.
We have normalized overwork. Being first in and last out of the office continues to carry a badge of honour in certain industries. Our ‘always on’ culture means that exhaustion has become the new normal and stress-related absence and career burnout are now recognized phenomena. Take the high-profile case of António Horta-Osório, CEO of Lloyds Banking Group, who was signed off with exhaustion only weeks after taking up his position. At the time, both he and the bank refused to say that his absence was stress related, but since then, Horta-Osório has spoken openly about his struggles and has become a high-profile advocate of ending the taboo around mental health at work.
Employees who feel that their organization truly cares about their well-being have been found to perform better, but these signals must come from the top. It is leaders who set the emotional tone in a company, so their behaviours must be congruent. Acting with compassion is not easy, however. It requires courage and sometimes it can mean challenging industry norms or the unquestioned assumptions within our workplaces about what it is acceptable to show or share when it comes to our feelings. If leaders take the time to get to know people regardless of their level, are seen to prioritize employee well-being over business outcomes, or are able to show their own vulnerability, this goes a long way in setting a context for compassion to thrive.
Given that one in three people are likely to face challenges to their mental health during their working life, leaders must also pave the way by talking openly about their own struggles, as this helps to legitimize emotional disclosure at work. Take the example of Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of The Huffington Post. Following first-hand experience of burnout, she founded the social movement Thrive Global, which seeks to end the stress and burnout epidemic.
There are certain building blocks that enable workplaces to embed compassion, with arguably the most important being organizational culture and leadership. Companies can have the brightest visions and the best plans, but if the culture is not conducive, compassion will never flourish. Corporate culture is intangible, but it is felt by all employees. It manifests itself through the stories that are told about the organization both from within it and outside it, as well as its structures, symbols and routines.
Some time ago, I interviewed the CEO of an international bank. His office was located on the 28th floor, which was only accessible via a private lift. When his personal assistant greeted me, she told me that it was customary for any visitor to the CEO to have a ‘meet and greet’ from the lift doors so as to make them “feel at home”. This experience told me more about the culture of this particular bank than I could have ever gleaned from a 45-minute interview with its boss.
For me, the sense of separation between the leader and the employees was palpable. It is common in companies for the boss to have their own private parking space, to occupy the biggest office or to be located on the top floor, with the best views, yet each time I experience these symbols of culture there is something unsettling about whose well-being is truly prioritised.
Compassion is not something that can be mandated from the top down; however, leaders are an inescapable focal point, as they have the power to mobilize resources through the roles they play and the examples they set. When it comes to leadership, stories are important, particularly the stories that leaders tell about their own suffering. Stories can help to build trust, convey values, share a vision of the future and build a sense of collective purpose. It is those leaders who role-model compassion by showing genuine care for others and who have the courage to be honest about their vulnerabilities who build trust quickest. That said, leaders also need to be up to the job. An individual can be the kindest, most caring and most genuine leader in the world, but unless we see them displaying ethical and competent leadership, they tend to elicit pity rather than respect. Equally, those leaders who only project strength and present themselves as the all-controlling, all-knowing hero instead generate fear and mistrust. It is leaders who demonstrate both warmth and competence who create the biggest impact when it comes to creating a culture of compassion.