Could your HR policies be stifling compassion?


Could your HR policies be stifling compassion?
As teams return to work and many employees continue to juggle heavy work demands with personal stress, how can HR foster compassion at work rather than risk making things worse? Dr Amy Bradley explains.

January can be a difficult month. Some people regret over-indulging during the festive season, while others face the stark reality of credit repayments following Christmas debts and many of us struggle with the dark, cold and miserable mornings on our return to work.

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At some point we will all face a difficult life episode, and for many, this can be part of the January blues. Take the onset of a critical illness for example, estimates suggest that 50% of the population will be diagnosed with a form of cancer during their lifetime. As people work longer and retire later, the number of people affected by illness is set to rise exponentially within the next few decades.

Despite our best efforts, it is impossible to keep the pain and angst brought about by these experiences separate from our professional lives.

The ‘suffering overspill’ caused by the difficulties we face in our home lives inevitably affects our motivation, performance and relationships at work, yet employers know little about how to respond.

Dignity and care
Working people spend as much time with their colleagues as they do with family members and the way in which we support individuals both formally (through company policies and procedures) and informally (as colleagues and friends) is a critical business issue. By encouraging your organisation to embed compassion, this will help to build a positive work environment in which individuals feel they are treated with dignity and care.

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Compassion is not just about feeling good by doing good. It also builds the bottom line. Researchers from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and George Mason University School of Business have detected a clear, positive correlation between compassionate behaviour, work satisfaction and company success. This means that compassion in the workplace can have a profound effect on business performance. In compassionate work environments, employees also report higher levels of engagement, as well as fostering trust and teamwork.

Organisations that are built around compassion have been found to generate better financial performance and experience high levels customer retention, as Cameron, Bright and Caza explore in this article in the American Behavioural Scientist Journal. So how can HR help to embed – rather than stifle – compassion in business? Here are four suggestions:

Focus on line managers

Behind workload and challenges in our personal life, the CIPD has found that management style is the third most common cause of stress at work, so the way in which line managers respond to employee suffering is crucial.

Unfortunately, however, only one in three of us feel genuinely supported by our organisation and less than half of us feel confident in disclosing emotional or personal issues to our current manager, according to the CIPD, so it is important that line managers are equipped to be proactive in their care and concern. They could, for example, ask the individual concerned how they would like to be supported when they are facing a difficult time and if they would like their situation to be communicated to other staff or customers.

Once aware of an individual’s struggles, is vital that line managers do not just offer a one off conversation, but continue to create the time and space for confidential non-work conversations where employees can openly express their emotions without fear of judgement or reprisal.

Recognise difference

During times of personal difficulty, HR professionals should feel able to flex policies to allow individuals to take the time away from work that they need, and if appropriate, to choose their own point of return.

By treating people as adults, most people will return to work within a timescale that is seen as acceptable to their employer. It should be HR’s role to support line managers to be creative with any policies, rather than being seen as ‘the policy police’. This is important because if someone is seen to have been treated unfairly, other employees in the organisation may question their own commitment to their employer as a result.

Some people just want to ‘work through it’

For some people, work can be an important distraction when they are facing personal struggles. By continuing to work during difficult life experiences, some people find that this brings much needed structure and routine to a life otherwise in disarray.

It is important, however, to understand that being at work does not mean it is ‘business as usual’ and individuals are unlikely to be performing at their best in these circumstances. In these situations, HR professionals and line managers are better advised to suspend judgement and to instead ask questions with care and curiosity, as this may uncover underlying reasons for a drop in performance.

HR professionals may also consider offering employees access to a named member of staff outside of the line management relationship with whom they can talk in confidence and through which specialist support can be organised.

Get trained up

Dealing with employee suffering is a common but complex part of a managerial role, yet training often lacks the practical content necessary to help managers to hone these skills.

It is line managers who can play the most important role in supporting employees in this regard, but they need to feel they have the skills to do so. For example, despite a rise in the number of employees who are facing issues of mental ill health, a recent study by Business in the Community found that only 24% of managers had received any mental health training in the past year.

When planning learning and development activities, leaders and HR professionals should consider offering training across a range of topics such as tackling mental ill health; bereavement support; handling redundancy or breaking difficult news.

Clearly, these pointers are only the start. Each organisation has its own context, business priorities, policies and practices, which means there is no one size fits all when it comes to compassion. However, by encouraging your organisation to foster genuine care for your people from within, you can begin to build healthier work environments in which your employees are healthier, happier and more engaged. This might be the best New Year’s resolution your company can make.

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