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.
For some time scientific research has been making the case for being kind at work. Now, increasingly work-based studies are also encouraging making kindness a conscious part of any workplace culture.
The science shows that being kind can improve heart function, lower blood pressure, slow aging and strengthen our immune systems. The author and scientist, David R. Hamilton explains that through the production of the hormone, oxytocin and the neurotransmitter, serotonin our levels of wellbeing are raised. Anxiety, stress and depression can all be reduced through preforming genuine acts of kindness. In his ground-breaking book, The Healing Power of Doing Good, Allan Luks documented the good feeling that you get from helping others and which is now referred to as the Helpers’ High.
Being kind at work builds on all these health benefits but goes further. Because kindness nurtures our instinct to connect, it helps to build better relationships and produce more effective teamwork. Whereas negativity tends to limit our scope and bring us down, kindness inspires and elevates us. It is also a key to successful innovation because people feel heard and valued and less afraid to suggest new and interesting ideas.
So why is kindness not part of every training programme and top of every staff development initiative? The answer is that although all the evidence points to its effectiveness, we still feel that being actively kind at work will leave us over-exposed and vulnerable.
A personal story
Last week I had to go along for my quarterly check-up with the rheumatology consultant. Over the years, I have had a series of doctors helping me. This was my second appointment with this new doctor and the extraordinary thing was that I came away feeling better than when I went in. There had not been any break-through, or outstanding good news but I felt heard, respected, seen and understood. The doctor had been alert, well-informed, and fully aware—and she had been kind. Her kindness was empathic but not sticky; practical but warm and most of all, she saw me as another human being.
It got me thinking about why we are so cautious about being kind at work. I came up with five reasons.
We are not always present and aware
In my story with the doctor I mentioned that she was alert and fully aware. In my experience, when people are operating from a sense of awareness, they see themselves and other people, as well as the situation they find themselves with more clarity. This gives a sense of confidence which makes showing kindness easier.
The thing is that we are not always present and aware. Research carried out at Harvard University in 2010 shows that for almost 47% of our waking hours we are thinking about something different to what we are doing. Our tendency for our minds to wander away undermines our ability to be fully present and tends to muddy our view of what we are doing, and how we are doing it.
Meditation is one of the most effective ways of working with our minds and increasing our awareness.
Stress narrows our focus
Although our brains are hard-wired for kindness, these impulses can get blocked when we are over-focused on ourselves. The pressure of the daily round at work can increase our stress levels and make this tendency worse.
When we are stressed and overwhelmed at work, then we tend to operate on survival mode. This means that we focus on managing what we need to do to get through each day. Our focus narrows and we are not inspired to reach out to others, or to try and see things from a different perspective.
It is very hard to inspire a culture of kindness in a workplace where people are overwhelmed and burnt-out.
There is often insufficient leadership culture to support kindness
It would be hard to over-state the importance of a leadership in building a culture of kindness in a workplace. Jonathan Haidt has researched something he calls elevation, or a heightened sense of wellbeing. Elevation happens when we see someone being kind to someone else—we do not even need to be involved ourselves. When a leader is fair, supportive and interested in his/her team then his/her employees experienced an increase in wellbeing. Remember that the actions of a leader are magnified by all the people they are responsible for. Their every action takes on additional importance. An ethical and people-focused boss who takes time to get to know people and their concerns will instil a greater sense of loyalty and commitment in the people they manage. In addition, people will be more likely to be kind and supportive of others. The knock-on effect is powerful.
We think we don’t have time for kindness
We can think that being kind at work is going to take extra time and effort and that there is not enough space for it at work.
A study carried out at Princeton Theological Seminary tells an interesting story. A group of divinity students were told they were going to deliver a practice sermon. Half the students were given the topic of the Good Samaritan and the other were given random topics. One by one they were told to go and deliver their sermon—some were told to hurry, others were told they were late, a third group was allowed to go at their own pace. As they went from one building to another they passed a person (an actor) lying on the floor in distress and calling for help. More than 60% of the students failed to stop and help—whether they were going to speak on the parable of the Good Samaritan or not. The deciding factor in whether someone offered to help or not was how much of a hurry they thought they were in. Only 10% of those advised to rush stopped to help, whereas 63% of those who thought they had time stopped to help.
We are afraid that kindness will make us vulnerable
All too often we assume a more public persona when we go to work. We keep our ‘private self’ for when we are at home, and with people who care about us. Somehow we worry that kindness will undermine this shield we throw up around our deeper feelings and interests. If we appear vulnerable we are afraid that will leave us exposed. Author and researcher Brené Brown gave one of the most successful TED talks of all time on the Power of Vulnerability.
Judging from the millions of people who have viewed her talk, she touched on something very deep and vital for our wellbeing.
She believes that the ability to be vulnerable is the key to authenticity and to what she calls, wholehearted living. Certainly is a workplace setting, vulnerability is a key to fostering innovation because it helps to create an environment where people feel safe to challenge set ways of thinking and bring in new ideas. It can also improve motivation, teamwork and positive identification with leadership.
Some strategies we can try out straight away
Meditation helps us to calm down and settle, however busy we are. It brings us back in touch with ourselves and enables us to be more aware of ourselves and other people. From that place, kindness comes naturally.
Here’s a simple meditation that I often use in workshops:
Sit comfortably—relaxed and yet alert
Check in with your body and ease any tight spots
Check in with your mood—how are you feeling?
—Don’t judge, just notice
Become aware of your breathing
—stay with where the sensation is most vivid for you