Take a moment to think about your workplace. Would you say it was a kind workplace? Is kind behaviour encouraged, or considered important?
All too often kindness is simply seen as a ‘soft skill’ and not considered to be necessary for navigating the complexities of work. This is a shame because focusing on kindness provides tremendous strength and flexibility to any workplace.
Stress at work
There are lots of quite worrying statistics about stress and its effects in the workplace. First off – stress is expensive. When people are stressed they are not functioning at their best and they tend to get sick.
The statistics bear this out. The Health & Safety Exec states that in 2017/18 15.4 million working days were lost in the UK as a result of stress. Across the pond, the American Psychological Association estimates that more than $500 billion is siphoned off from the U.S. economy because of workplace stress, and 550 million workdays are lost each year due to stress on the job.
The effect on staff
Moreover, engagement in work — which is associated with feeling valued, secure, supported, and respected — is generally negatively associated with a high-stress, cut-throat culture. It people do not feel valued and respected at work, then they tend to disengage and this has consequences.
In studies by the Queens School of Business and by the Gallup Organization, disengaged workers had 37% higher absenteeism, 49% more accidents, and 60% more errors and defects. Similarly, in the UK it is estimated that disengaged employees are costing the UK economy £340 billion every year in lost training and recruitment costs, sick days, productivity, creativity and innovation.
This also affects staff loyalty and the rate at which people leave to look for new jobs.
Increasingly consumers are more alert to companies’ ethical positions. With Statistics from recent consumer polls by Edelman, and Young & Rubicam, show that 87% of UK consumers expect companies to consider societal interests equal to business interests, while 71% of people make it a point to buy brands from companies whose values are similar to their own.
Looking at this sample of statistics, we can see that the environment of a workplace definitely has an effect on the people who work in it. If the atmosphere is not healthy, there are strong repercussions. So, maybe a kind workplace culture could turn out to be much more of an investment for employers that they thought.
What is so special about kindness?
From a Buddhist perspective, generating loving kindness is a way of wishing people happiness. It is an antidote to anger. If you think about it – it’s hard to be angry with someone and do something kind for them at the same time.
Kindness also makes us happier because we feel good when we are kind. In his research with volunteers, Allan Luks identified a Helper’s High that people experienced when they volunteered due to the release of dopamine in their brains.
It is also good for the heart because acts of kindness are associated with emotional warmth. This produces the hormone oxytocin which has an effect of causing blood vessels to dilate and so eases blood pressure.
We all like to be around kind people. Kindness reduces the emotional distance between people, and we feel bonded. So, kindness helps us to connect and improves relationships.
A great thing about kindness is that it is contagious. When we see people being kind to each other—we don’t even need to be directly involved—we feel good ourselves. Then we are more likely to go on to do something kind for someone else.
So, a kind workplace would be one in which employees were happier, geared to helping each other and healthier. It would also mean an improvement in relationships between staff but also with suppliers, customer and clients.
How would a kind workplace be?
Here are a few thoughts on some basic elements that would assist in ensuring that kindness is valued in a workplace. It’s by no means exhaustive.
• Staff would not need to assume a persona to succeed
It’s a strange fact of our lives but we spend more time with the people we work with than our friends and family. We see them most days—whatever is happening in our lives and however we feel. The thing is that all too often we feel that we need to wear a mask at work. A mask that says that we have ourselves together and are not affected by emotions.
Actually, it’s a pity if we feel this way. To begin with, it’s not true. Of course, we are affected by emotions and the things we need to cope with. By hiding this at work and pretending to be something else, we are cutting off a source of connection and even empathy.
Naturally we are at work to carry out a job and to do it to the best of our ability, but this does not mean that we have to behave like machines. We can be honest about how we are and how we are doing.
• People would be willing to lend a helping hand
With that kind of honesty in a workplace, it becomes much more possible to offer support to colleagues when they are struggling. If someone is having a hard time they don’t need to feel like a failure, or that they are letting anyone down. Knowing that it is alright to acknowledge struggle and to ask for help when it’s needed can be a tremendous source of relief. It opens the possibility to deepen relationships and to learn and grow together.
• Blame would not be a fallback response and mistakes could be forgiven
How easy it is to blame someone else for the inevitable mistakes that occur in any workplace. This tends to happen more in a work environment that is particularly competitive and aggressive.
Managers have a big role to play here. They need to create a culture where mistakes are understood as opportunities to learn, rather than failures to be punished. Staff could be encouraged to experiment and take reasonable risks. Managers could provide support to increase their confidence. Knowing that you will be blamed if something you are working on goes wrong increases stress and decreases improvisation.
• The meaningfulness of the work would be a priority
Generally speaking, we all look for meaning and purpose in our work. We want to know that we are using our time well and contributing to something bigger than ourselves. The very process of developing kindness in the workplace is itself connecting staff to a greater purpose.
Managers can enhance this by encouraging kindness and by sharing stories of how this connects to the company’s values.
• People wanting to inspire one another at work
A workplace based on kindness would function as an interdependent unit. There would be a holistic view of the workforce. In such an environment, individuals would realise that just as they need encouragement and inspiration, so do other people. So, it would be natural for people to want to inspire and encourage each other.
• People could treat each other with respect, gratitude and integrity
Learning to respect other people’s opinions is not always easy – especially if you disagree with them. A kind workplace would take respect as a foundation for difficult conversations and working through challenges. Allowing people to express themselves and to be heard is a mark of respect. Dialogue and exchange will go more smoothly in such circumstances.
Appreciating the efforts that people make and being grateful for their contribution is also fundamental to a kind workplace. It does not have to be a big thing. It can be simply being grateful for a friendly greeting, or the offer of a cup of coffee. Showing your appreciation makes the other person feel seen and respected.
This is the first of a series of posts on kindness in the workplace. I would love to hear your response and your ideas about how to bring this into action.
If you have found the ideas in this post interesting you might like to look at my new online course, How to Make Kindness Matter at Work. You can find out more here.
Last week was quite a rough week in which gratitude did not readily leap into my mind. A close family member was admitted to hospital early in the week. Our car developed an ominous rattle, which turned out to signal the need for massive repairs. Various work deadlines had to be pushed back. There was plenty of worry and stress.
On Sunday evening we were due to go over to a friend’s place for dinner. We really wanted to see him but were struggling to pull our energy together and make the journey across town by public transport. My partner rang him to finalise travel instructions and our friend picked up on our exhausted state. He immediately suggested that he bring the food over to us and cook the meal for us right in our own home!
Suddenly gratitude was a much bigger part of my world view.
Gratitude can increase your happiness
The relationship between happiness and gratitude is one that is being thoroughly researched in the field of Positive Psychology. There is now quite a considerable body of studies and findings that show the benefits of gratitude.
In her book, The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky details research her department of psychology in the University of California has carried out on the power of gratitude. Subjects are required to keep a ‘gratitude’ journal every Sunday for six weeks in which they record five things that they could feel grateful for during the previous week. Their levels of happiness and well-being were found to have increased as a result.
The importance of noticing things you are grateful for
If I am honest, I used to find that my eyes would glaze over as I read the huge lists of ways your life can improve once you make room for gratitude. It’s probably because of my upbringing and the emphasis on always saying ‘thank you’ and having to write an endless stream of thank you letters to aunts and uncles every birthday and Christmas. I got into the way of feeling gratitude was a bit of a chore – something I was ‘supposed’ to feel.
It’s really through my meditation practice that I have found the space to allow gratitude to flourish. It’s something to do with my mind quietening down sufficiently to allow me to experience more directly. Then I can notice what I want to be grateful for. The more I allow myself to open to it, the more settled I feel, and my happiness is increased. Last week was not a very happy week and yet our friend’s kindness resulted in us both going to bed more relaxed and happier than we had been all week.
365 Thank Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life
I particularly recommend this short, readable book for its no-nonsense, practical approach to gratitude. The author John Kralik tells the story of how he turned his life around by focusing his attention on what he had of value in his life rather than on what was missing.
In Kralik’s case that was no hypothetical shift. He was a middle-aged and overweight divorcé. He was estranged from his older children, on the point of losing his current girlfriend and possibly his business too. He felt things had come to such a point that he needed to make major changes in his life.
Inspired by a thank-you note that he received himself he decided to spend the year writing at least one thank you letter a day to cover all the things in his life he could feel grateful for. The book tells the story of how this process did in fact change his life.
The gratitude story in Kralik’s book that stood out most for me
My favourite story concerns Scott, the guy who serves the author in his local Starbucks. Not only does Scott remember how Kralik likes his coffee but he greets him every day by name in a genuine and friendly way. When Kralik delivers his thank you note, Scott assumes it is a complaint letter and is momentarily dismayed only to be delighted on realizing his has received appreciation and gratitude instead.
Gratitude can help us to really see people
It made me more aware of how I interact with the ‘routine’ people in my life—cab drivers, waitresses, shop assistants—all the people it can be so easy to glaze over while my attention is focused elsewhere. Just because someone is paid to do a job or offer a service it does not mean that we no longer need to feel appreciated for what we do. Like Kralik, I also quickly saw how much better I feel in taking the time to properly acknowledge the services I receive.
A thought about gratitude in the workplace
At work it is all too easy to take our colleagues for granted, or to feel unappreciated ourselves. Lyubomirsky points out that, among other things, gratitude helps us appreciate what we have rather than yearn for what we do not have and so increases our sense of self-worth and self-esteem. When we see how much we have to be grateful for it increases our confidence and helps us to unlearn the habit of over-focusing on our weaknesses and failures. So, a work team that is able to share appreciation for each other’s work and gratitude for each individual’s contribution has to be a healthier, stronger and more effective operating force. Take a look at Kralik’s book if you need convincing.
Some ways to cultivate gratitude
1. Keep your own gratitude journal
You could try keeping your own gratitude journal. This does not need to be anything fancy. A simple notebook that you use to jot down things that happened to you during the day which inspired gratitude. It helps us to notice things we are grateful for and to remember them.
2. Start a gratitude ritual
I have some friends who have a family ritual. Over dinner at the weekend each member of the family gets to share something that happened to them during the week that they are grateful for. They say it really brings the family together and everyone enjoys hearing the other people’s stories.
3. Try writing your own thank you notes
Of course, you could always try your own version of John Kralik’s thank you letters.
As I write this post ……
I am working on a tight schedule today and my partner just offered to cover my share of the morning chores so I could get started. It’s quite amazing how such a simple gesture can help me to settle so much more deeply. Feeling gratitude certainly can lead to a greater feeling of contentment. We just need to be open to noticing it and letting it nourish us.
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This is the story of how I recently overcame my feelings of wanting to lie low and nurse my stress by going into town and joining with the common humanity I found there.
The last few months have been pretty stressful one way and another and I have been feeling the effects. I work from home, which is great, but when things are intense I can end up feeling a bit isolated. A couple of weekends back my partner was away giving a workshop and I had not made any plans myself. Because I was not feeling sociable, I thought I could work through the weekend.
Unexpectedly, Saturday morning dawned fresh and bright and tempted me to go out and play.
Getting out of my comfort zone
Although I could feel the pull to get out of the house I resisted for a while—I had too much to do, I didn’t want to spend loads of money, I was a bit tired…………. After a while I realised, with a bit of a shock that what was getting in the way was my reluctance to leave my comfort zone. It was easier to stay at home, feeling a bit sorry for myself, than make the effort to go out. This insight gave me a real jolt. I don’t see myself as someone who plays safe. I made up my mind to get ready and go out.
Common humanity and self-compassion
Kristen Neffis one of the leading voices in the research and practice of self-compassion. She sees self-compassion as being composed of three elements:self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. Each of these components is an antidote to ways we can undermine ourselves when we do not practice self-compassion. So self-kindness is an antidote to judging ourselves and mindfulness is an antidote to over-identification, or the ways we exaggerate what is happening around us. Common humanity is the antidote to self-isolation. I certainly felt that when I realised part of me preferred to stay home and wallow!
The healing potential of connecting with common humanity was something I experienced directly that Saturday, as I went tired and bruised into town and came home feeling re-charged and uplifted.
Connecting with others is healing
Amsterdam was packed that day. I had forgotten for a moment the huge impact of tourists in the city. There are always lots of people visiting Amsterdam but, in the summer, it gets astronomical. In a city of less than one million inhabitants, 18,000,000 visitors are expected this year. Sometimes I can find this invasive but somehow this time it touched me.
So many people were out and about wanting to enjoy themselves and have a good time. You could hear a whole range of languages and accents as people tried to find their way around the city. There were families and young couples. Older people in tourist parties followed closely behind their guide. There was a tangible sense of movement and enquiry.
To my shame, my Dutch is very poor. Although I have lived in Amsterdam for many years I have not managed to become fluent in Dutch. When I am on my own I always want to let people know that I am not a tourist, just a poor Dutch speaker. On this Saturday I had interactions with all kinds of people in shops, and my confession led to a whole series of interesting stories with the people working in the shops I visited. There was lots of sharing of experiences and much laughter and teasing.
Because I was on my own, people were more likely to take time to talk with me. I could feel something in me relax with the enjoyment of chatting without any particular kind of agenda. In the café where I stopped for coffee there was time to look round and see the other people enjoying their coffee and cake.
One of my favourite meditations for common humanity
The more I walked around and felt myself as one of the crowd, the more I could feel the tightness of recent months begin to dissolve. With my own stress and worry still so close, it was a small step to look at others and wonder how they were and what they were coping with.
I found myself reciting, or paraphrasing lines from this meditation more and more as the afternoon went by. Would anyone know from looking at me what I had been carrying over the last months? Probably not. How can any of us gauge what someone is dealing with, other than by accepting the basic truth that life is both wonderful and very hard at the same time. We all want things to go well but life shows us that some of the time they won’t. Everyone has their own worry, suffering and pain—everyone. So it is possible to look into the eyes of anyone you pass by and think, ‘just like me.’This is the experience of common humanity for me.
As my walk around town continued I experienced a growing sense of gratitude. It felt so good to be part of the energy of the people enjoying the city, as well as feeling a sense of connection between myself and them.
My worries were still there but I felt much less alone with them. Remembering that everyone I was meeting would be going through their own version of challenge and anxiety lifted the heaviness from my own. Before I set off to play in town I was feeling that my problems were all-pervasive. After a few hours of shopping and people-watching I simply felt that we were all in the same boat—wanting happiness but dealing with whatever comes along.
Research into gratitude over the past 15 years is finding several emotional, and lately even physical benefits. Connecting with common humanity, recognising its power to help me and experiencing gratitude because of that transformed my mood and lifted my heart. I will not quickly forget the experience.
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