It probably won’t surprise you to know that I haven’t spent all my career working with meditation and chocolate – though during a lot of it I was eating chocolate and dabbling in some chocolate making on the side.
Before I started Food At Heart, I spent over 17 years working in range of businesses, nearly all of them big ones. I started out my full time working life at a big music royalties collection organisation, before moving to a global market research agency, a government marketing department and then an international online marketplace business. (In the middle of this was a disastrous 6 month stint in my mid-twenties in a small office that ended up with me being admitted to hospital in what was clearly, in hindsight, a stress-related illness.)
Having spent most of my working life being surrounded by lots of people, it was definitely a big step and a big change going out on my own as a one woman band.
This change and now some distance has given me a bit of perspective on the types of places I used to work and some of the rather unhealthy working environments that were created. In some ways things have come slightly full circle as a lot of the work I now do involves running sessions in businesses and sharing tools around mindfulness and meditation. I kind of wish I’d incorporated more of these tools in my own previous working life.
Going into businesses brings back many memories, good and bad. Like most people I had a broad range of managers, from the fantastic to the downright awful, all of whom I learned something from. The reality is when you’re spending most of your life at work, your manager can make the difference between a job being amazing or dismal.
And this is why I read the latest report from the CIPD on Heath and Well-being at Work with so much interest.
Health, wellbeing and compassion at work
The main topic highlighted in recent press coverage of the report was that overall levels of stress, as reported by HR and People professionals within organisations, was on the up. Much of this was attributed to workload, but a big chunk was to do with “management style”.
Without significant business redesign, workload is always going to be an issue, but one thing that can be worked on more immediately is looking at how people are managed, particularly in the light of stress-inducing workloads. And this is where compassion has a huge role to play.
Having managed a few people over the years, I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily a natural people manager. However one of the things I always brought to managing people was a listening ear and some compassion (even though I didn’t really realise this at the time). On reflection, I think compassion is a very underrated quality in business. Approaching situations as one human being to another can lead to much more satisfying conversations, relationships and, ideally, outcomes.
Being compassionate doesn’t mean not giving people honest feedback when they are under-performing or not behaving in an appropriate way. In fact, sometimes the most compassionate thing you can do is equip people with the knowledge, skills and attitude to improve in their current job or, in some instances, help them find another job they are better suited to. And there are ways of doing this that don’t end up with my situation of being admitted to hospital!
This compassion also needs to go both ways. It can be very easy to complain, criticise and lack empathy towards your manager without taking the time to consider things from their perspective or situation. I’ve written before about the importance of self-kindness as one element of self-compassion. Ultimately by working on being more kind and compassionate to yourself, you’re able to extend this more readily to other people, including the people you work with and who manage you.
How to create a more compassionate workplace
Whether you are a line manager, leader or employee, we can all play a role in creating a more compassionate workplace.
A great place to start with compassion is by genuinely listening to each other at work, not making assumptions about what people are thinking or feeling – and of course listening to yourself and recognising what you need in your workplace. This is certainly where mindfulness has helped me as it has improved my ability to listen to myself and to other people (though I’m definitely still working on the second part!).
If you’re not a good listener, this is something you can practise. A great place to start is to ask someone a couple of open questions and then don’t say anything until they’ve completely finished responding.
Take a breath
I mean this is in a few senses of the phrase.
First of all, taking a breath or two before responding in anger can help you to be more measured in your responses in a stressful situation (or to help prevent creating one).
But more broadly, this is also about prioritising both physical and mental rest.
This might include a few minutes of meditation over lunch, some time away from your desk every hour or giving more priority to your sleep. All of these can help you to feel more refreshed, as well as helping you to be less emotionally reactive, which is much more conducive to creating a compassionate working environment.
Express a little gratitude
As well as listening, don’t underestimate the benefits of telling, most specifically when it comes to telling someone you’re grateful for the work they are doing.
There was a really interesting study carried out in 2010 (though admittedly with quite a small sample) that looked at the impact of a director of fundraising team telling half of her employees that she was grateful for their hard work. The other half didn’t get this same message. There was a boost in productivity in the first group, as well as an increased sense of self-worth.
The wider set of studies this was part of also showed people’s willingness to give more time to help others increased when gratitude expressions were incorporated in task instructions, so a little gratitude can go a long way!
Ask for what you need to look after your mental health at work
And another little bit of telling…
Don’t expect your line manager or senior management team to be mind readers! If you want to see some changes in your business, ask. Or at least ask for confidential channels to put requests through if you don’t feel you can do it directly. This might be yoga or meditation sessions, advice on financial wellbeing or regular discussions with managers (or another person if your manager isn’t the right person) on mental health. It might even be more flexible working.
One of the things that jumped out to me from the CIPD report was that quite a few of the organisations surveyed didn’t involve employee feedback in their wellbeing programmes so you might need to let them know proactively. Or if you are an HR professional, perhaps now is a great time to ask people what they really want as they might not feel able to tell you otherwise.
Of course the talk needs to be followed by action, but talking and listening is a great place to start.
If you need some help to get the talking started, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has created a Talking Toolkit which is helpful for both managers and employees to read through.
What one thing could you do to make your work a more compassionate place?
Health and Well-being at Work – CIPD in partnership with Simply Health, 2019
Adam M. Grant & Francesca Gino. A Little Thanks Goes a Long Way: Explaining Why Gratitude Expressions Motivate Prosocial Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2010, Vol. 98, No. 6, 946 –955.