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.
A while back I was having quite a bit of knee trouble and it was hard to get around. I fly a lot for my work and so I needed to rely on airport assistance for a couple of trips.
Basically, you get put into a wheelchair, or on to a buggy and are zipped through passport control and security at top speed with minimum inconvenience. Unless you feel being delivered like a package to your plane counts as an inconvenience.
Like most of us, I value my independence and was not too keen on having to ask for help. Added to that was the worry that this temporary situation might turn out to be longer lasting than I wanted. All in all, it was a vulnerable time.
Meeting the people whose job is as to provide me with assistance was an eye opener. I came to sort them into one of four groups.
The young people who don’t relate to what is going on with you.
These are generally young people on the first rung of the ladder who just wants to get the job done. They absolutely do not want to spend their time imagining what it must be like to spend any time at all in a wheel chair. It has nothing to do with them and the prospect seems too remote from their own experience.
With this group you just feel vaguely irrelevant.
The more experienced worker who has been assigned to airport assistance temporarily and is enjoying the novelty.
At one point, I spent the half an hour waiting for my gate to come up and my ‘carer’ had to wait with me. She spent the time telling me about the problems she was having with another member of staff making unwanted advances to her. There was an underlying subtle message that I was expected to give back something for the privilege of being driven around the airport. My assistance provider had a captive audience and wanted to make the most of it. I played my part and did my best to listen and give whatever advice I could.
At least I felt like a human being, even if one that was supposed to work for their care.
The expert carer with pride in their work.
Make no mistake, once you sit in the wheelchair you are a captive audience for whatever comes to you. One of my most unnerving encounters was with an airport assistance person who actually took immense pride in his work and tried his very best to give top quality support.
He explained that he preferred to do without the lifts and pulleys that can be used to get people on and off planes and resort to the strength of his own arms. This sounds good but it meant that as we transferred to the airport bus to take us from the ‘plane to the terminal, he tipped my wheelchair almost on its back to get me on to the bus—without using the lift.
At one point I felt quite worried. I could imagine him lifting me bodily into the car that my friend had waiting for me at the airport. In spite of his enthusiasm, or perhaps because of it, I felt like a project rather than a person.
I have met people so solicitous of my feelings that I have felt concerned to reassure them that I am all right and do not expect to have to do this procedure more than a few times.
In some ways, this was the most difficult group to handle. They were so sorry for me and so anxious to get things right. I felt burdened by their concern.
What did I learn from my wheelchair experience?
Overall, the whole experience touched me very much in seeing how natural it is for us to wish to help others. Everyone who helped me as part of this service was kind and polite and many have done more than was asked of them. Happily, I did just need the help for a limited period of time, but it has changed the way I look at other people in similar situations. I hope I can see a bit more deeply.
The main thing that I learnt was that wanting to be a help is not enough. To really help, with no fuss, you need to have the extraordinary skill of being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes—or in this case, wheelchair. It is possible to tell instinctively if someone has cared for a friend or relative with mobility problems because they know how to do this. People with this experience know you have to drop you own ideas of how you think the job needs to be done. Instead you try to imagine what you would need if you were in that position. It’s not easy but those who can do it stand out a mile from the rest.
It’s a pity that the people who do this work do not receive some basic training on mindfulness and empathy skills. They give so much already it would be great for them to have support to know how to do it even more effectively.
It must be one of the most dreaded moments in life—the moment when the worry that there is something wrong with your car turns into a certainty and you have to head for the hard shoulder of the motorway and search for the nearest emergency phone.
It happened to us on our way back from spending two months in our cottage in the south of France. We were fifty kilometres south of Orleans with a hotel booked in Paris. It was starting to get dark and we were waiting for the road service to arrive. Our joy on seeing the truck draw up in front of us was short-lived. The car needed a new dynamo. It was Saturday evening, and nothing would be open until Monday afternoon. There was nothing for it but for the car to go on the back of the truck and us to be transported with it.
An unexpected kindness
We felt pretty miserable as we tried to mentally re-juggle all our plans for the next few days, and there was a definite sense of being very alone and far from home. We had to stumble along the edge of the hard shoulder to get to the truck. I have been having problems with my knees for some time, which meant that I limped along well behind my partner and wondered how on earth I was going to get on board. The maintenance man spotted my difficulty and came around to help me. By guiding my feet on to the steps, he helped me make the climb. In those few moments, I felt less alone and the maintenance man became another human being, rather than a just deliverer of unwanted news.
In fact, he turned out to be a bit of a hero all round. He drove us to his garage and let down our car. Telling me to stay where I was, he directed my partner to gather together the things we would need for an over-night stay. He phoned several local hotels until he found one that could accommodate us and then he drove us there. He gave us his phone number and directions on when and how to contact him and drove off to continue his work of rescuing stranded motorists throughout the night.
A kindly hotel
The hotel we found ourselves in was a small, family-run hotel on the main street. We were greeted warmly by the lady of the house and shown to our room. As my partner struggled up the stairs with all our various bags, I followed along with my rucksack but found the stairs difficult because of my knee problem. I felt my bag lifted from my shoulders and turned to see someone who I presumed to be the daughter who had come to help. She took the bag all the way to our room.
One of the things that I find challenging about certain parts of France is that after nine o’clock it is impossible to find anything to eat. As it was now well after nine o’clock, we feared we would go to bed hungry. The hotel had a restaurant run by the husband of the family. We timidly asked his wife if there was any chance of an omelette and after consulting her husband, they agreed to keep the restaurant open and to serve us a simple meal. Rarely has an omelette tasted so good as when it is eaten in a strange town you never meant to visit and is served with such generosity, while your car sits in an unfamiliar garage waiting to be repaired.
This generositywas a feature of our enforced stay at the hotel. It carried on in all kinds of small ways culminating in the chef-husband driving us to another hotel nearer to the garage, because his hotel closed on Sunday nights and there were no taxis to take us. When we thanked him, he replied simply, ‘It’s normal.’
The family in the hotel, and the maintenance man were all doing their jobs. We paid for the services we received and yet there was a distinct feeling that we received something we could not have paid for or put a price on. Without fuss they all offered small acts of kindnessthat transformed their services into more than a business transaction. They seemed to understand how awful it is to be in that situation without us having to say anything at all. By being prepared to connectwith us, as human beings—and even human beings in a difficult situation—they became more human to us and we could be comforted by their kindness and generosity.
The transformative nature of kindness
We ended up being stuck there for three nights. It turned out that the dynamo could not be delivered before the Tuesday. When I think of the occasion, it is the kindnessthat I remember more strongly than all the inconvenience. No-one did anything very out of the ordinary—as the chef said, it was normal—but by infusing their work with kindness they helped to transform a worrying and stressful situation into something manageable. Not a bad result for a day’s work—and the kindness really did conquer all!
My niece is stressed at the moment because she has an end-of-year presentation for her PhD. My neighbour has been stressed for some time because she has a mysterious leak in her shower, which the plumber has so far been unable to fix. A colleague of mine is on extended sick leave due to high blood pressure and has been told to avoid anything likely to cause her stress. My friend had a headache for three days because he was stressed with over-work.
Divorce, bereavement, moving to a new house and even going on holiday all rate high in the stress scale. Troubles at work, economic instability and unemployment are also possible sources. We can even feel stress if caught in traffic or standing in a slow-moving queue at the airport. When we worry about our families, our health, our job, our weight, we are creating scenarios in the mind that can create stress. A short-term physical crisis, such as falling over or scalding an arm can be termed stressful, as can longer-term physical challenges like facing chronic illness or disability.
What is stress?
We use the word ‘stress’ to cover a multitude of experiences—things we are afraid of, things we don’t like, feelings we have, worries that plague us—we refer to all of them as stress. So, we find ourselves using stress to describe moods we have, sensations in our bodies, our reactions to events around us, things happening to us, or things we are worried will happen to us.
In fact, our stress response evolved to help us avoid threat and survive as a species. Our bodies respond to stress in much the same way as any other mammal. However, the way this works in modern life it is not so simple. We subject ourselves to low grade stress for long periods of time. This means that our bodies are continuously being subjected to all the effects of the stress response even when we do not need it.
We get stressed by the very things we created in order to make our lives easier. When my internet goes down it drives me crazy. If I have computer trouble it feels, it can cause stress.
Having a flat tyre is not usually a life-threatening situation and yet it can cause our stress to erupt. Once we have got upset, it is hard to find our off switch and reset. The stress tends to rumble on. Any other mammal experiencing a stressor being removed simply returns to its normal activity. If a zebra escapes from the lion who is trying to eat it, it just goes back to grazing.
On top of that, as humans we have the capacity to think, imagine, and project. No zebra would understand how anyone could lie awake at night worrying about a presentation that they have to make at work the next day. When we worry, we are causing ourselves stress about stuff that might not ever happen.
How we react
We can also help ourselves by looking more closely at what is going on for us when we talk about being stressed. Often we say we are stressed when things are simply not going the way we want them to—we just miss the bus we were running for, the person before us in the supermarket picks up the last loaf of our favourite bread, a colleague at work does not perform how we think they should.
Of course, all these things can be annoying, but we can tip them over into stressful situations by how we react. If we shrug and look for the next bus coming along instead of cursing the driver for not waiting for us; if we mentally offer the bread to the person who got there first instead of resenting them and if we take the time to talk to our colleague to find out why their performance is under-par we can things on a manageable level and avoid a full-stress impact.
There is a Buddhist teaching about two arrows. It describes how when something difficult happens we suffer and feel pain, as if being shot by an arrow. That in itself is intense enough but then we often react to what is happening by complaining, blaming, or hitting out. The pain that this causes us is like being shot by a second arrow. Maybe we cannot avoid the first one, but we do have some choice about the second one.
Stress is inevitable
Hans Seyle, the father of stress research, once said that if you do not experience stress, you must be dead! We know that life is full of challenges. Some are huge and seem overwhelming. Many are small and relatively unimportant in themselves but can add up to a lot of hassle. Training ourselves to accept this, rather than fight it is can be a big help in working with stress.
Meditation can help with this. It helps us become more present, which cuts our habit of ruminating over our worries. Our perspective opens up and we are less likely to take things so personally. Through meditation we can build resilience and learn to how to come back more quickly from a difficult experience.
We can also learn to be more kind to ourselves and stop beating ourselves up about things that go wrong. Telling ourselves off for finding things hard is certainly being hit with two arrows, instead of just one.
Understanding the stress of other people
When we can take a look at how we react, as well as beginning to accept the inevitability of stress it opens up some space. Then we can look around us and see how stress affects other people.
Maybe we find ourselves having to drop into our local super-market on the way home from work. If we take the time to look around us as we push our trolleys through the laden shelves, it is not hard to find opportunities to observe many of the ways we human beings experience stress.
Consider the middle-aged man in a smart suit buying an easy-to prepare meal for one. Perhaps he is recently divorced, living alone for the first time in years and dealing with the stress of change and upheaval. Spare a thought for the young mother with a baby in a buggy and a toddler clinging round her legs. She looks as if she has not had a propernight’s sleep for two or three years. The lounging teenage boy sulking around the soft drinks has an air of aimlessness and boredom about him. Maybe because he left school with such high hopes and now does not seem to be able to find any kind of job that lives up to his dreams. Take care as you pass the older woman, walking carefully, who underwent major surgery two months ago and is feeling low and vulnerable as she tries to get her strength back.
Recognising our shared humanity
As we select the items, we need to cook our evening meal, perhaps we are rubbing shoulders with people suffering from exam nerves, having relationship problems, shouldering the care of elderly relatives–the list is endless.
If we can create space around our own stress, it enables us to see more clearly what is going on for other people. Recognising stress in other people brings home how we are all in the same boat. Whatever our differences, we all just want to be happy and avoid suffering and pain. Yet we know that life brings challenges that we all need to face from time to time.
When we allow ourselves to take account of the difficulties other people face, it opens our hearts. Instead of being focused on our own problems we find room for concern for those of other people. We feel more connected with others and less likely to isolate ourselves with our own worries.
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A few weeks ago, my partner and I were out with some friends for dinner. We had not seen them for a while, and we had a lot to talk about. On top of that, one of our friends was going through a bit of a tough time and needed support. We happy to offer it, except that the people at the table behind us were celebrating and extremely noisy. It was one of those weird situations where you found yourself raising your voice to talk about delicate things. I found myself beginning to experience what I can only describe as ‘restaurant rage’.
I was focused on our small group at our table and found myself glancing over my shoulder in increasing irritation at the thoughtlessness of the noisy crowd behind me. It seemed to be that they were inconsiderate and thoughtless, with no care for the enjoyment of the other diners.
Eventually, after a while, a sense of doubt set in. How was my behaviour any different? I wanted things quiet and peaceful so my friends and I could have the environment we wanted. The celebrators wanted to have a good time. I wanted things one way and they wanted them another. Why did I assume that my way was best? Why did I feel entitled to it?
It got me thinking about how our default position is so often to want others to change to fit in with how we want things to be. It is so much harder to change our own behaviour to be able to manage the challenging situation more effectively.
Here are the things that I came up with to try and help myself cope. I live in a city; noisy restaurants are common—so turning restaurant rage into kindness seems like a good investment.
Take care of your irritation
If you are going to change the way you are reacting, you need to give yourself some time to realise you are irritated and then to calm down. I usually find a few long, slow breaths will do it. No-one needs to notice—you can just rest your attention on your breath for a few moments until you feel yourself coming back.
The next thing is to get a handle on what is actually happening, rather than what you imagine is happening. In my dinner example, the party at the nearby table were not nasty people on a mission to spoil my evening—there just wanted to enjoy themselves.
With this perspective, it’s easier to remember that it’s not all about you. You have the right to want things to go the way you wish but then so does everyone else. Sometimes things go your way, sometimes they go another person’s way. There’s not a lot we can do to change that and getting irritated about it just makes you miserable.
Show yourself some kindness
As soon as I started to think this way, I felt a bit bad for being so down on our neighbours. The voice in my head started to tell me off for being so self-centred and intolerant. Before I knew where I was, I was feeling guilty and telling myself that I am always just so impatient.
Fortunately, I quickly realised what I was doing, and decided to give myself a break. When we try to deal with our reactions, sometimes we get it wrong for a while. It’s no big deal as long as we can see what is going on. It is really important not to muddy the water by beating up on yourselfat the same time. It just makes things more complicated and does not help at all.
Pay attention to the sound without the storyline
Funnily enough, it is possible to use sound as a support for meditation. Of course, if you are in a restaurant you might not want to go off into a corner for a meditation session, but you can still use the principle. Just notice the sounds around you, without judging and without building a storyline about them. You could call it a Teflon relation to sound—just notice it with your full attention but without commentary.
Going back again to my restaurant example—I immediately made a story about my friend and I needing quiet and the people nearby ruining it with their noise. Thinking back, it’s quite likely they were not even particularly aware of us.
We relate to the world through our senses, but we do have a choice as to how we are with the information they provide. We don’t always have to react.
Enjoy other people’s pleasure
When you get annoyed with the behaviour of other people your stress levels rise and you feel uncomfortable. In the restaurant, I could feel myself getting tight with trying to block out the noisy table.
A totally different approach is to notice joywhen it is happening around you and to allow it to nourish you.
This might involve dropping your own agenda and simply opening to the enjoyment of others. It could mean that instead of protecting yourself, you allow yourself to open to the happiness of other people. It does not have to be your happiness, but it can lift your heart just the same.
Always wish them well
My remedy for restaurant rage is wishing people wellbeing and happiness. Anyone we come across is the same as usin wanting to be happy and to avoid all the things that cause them pain. Even the most annoying person just wants to be happy. If you can bring that to mind when you are feeling irritated, it changes everything.
You may have heard of Loving Kindness Meditation. It’s a meditation focused on wishing happiness and wellbeing for yourself, for people close to you, for people you do not know so well and even for people you find challenging.
Even if you are not familiar with the whole meditation, you can still focus on a person, or group of people and in your mind, say something like, May you be happy, may you be well. I find it a great exercise to do when I am in crowded places and there are many people. It brings me a feeling of ease.
Do you have any tips for turning rage into kindness in city life? If you do, please add them in the comments section so we can all try them out.