Are compassionate organisations a possibility?

Newsletter articles

20 Dec 2017

Employment Studies Issue 26

Kate SpiegelhalterKate Spiegelhalter, Research Officer

Compassion as a concept is on the rise as a way of improving employee wellbeing, increasing productivity, and creating wider impacts on organisational culture. However, there are issues around the definition of compassion and questions around how to apply it in a workplace setting. This article examines the debate and gives an overview of IES’ work in this area.

Compassion is gaining increasing weight as a way of dealing with interactions between people in a variety of settings. The first issue of the International Journal for Mindfulness and Compassion at Work[1] (IJMC) was launched this year, and 2017 also saw the first International Summit for Mindfulness and Compassion at Work, which aimed to ‘explore innovative and evidence-based ways to foster and co-create healthy, resilient, happy organisations in which all can flourish’[2].

However, questions remain as to whether this enthusiasm can be translated effectively to the business world, where ‘while some managers fear showing too much kindness could be perceived as weakness, others think pressure is the only way to keep employees productive’[3].

Are compassionate organisations a possibility?

Conceptually, compassion also remains challenging to define: its value in our lives is clear, yet we may find it difficult to apply in our organisations, or even not believe it to be relevant. Compassion involves the ability to notice, feel, or perceive another person’s pain, and to be with them or take action to alleviate that person’s suffering[4]. This can take place on both the level of individual relationships and on an interpersonal level within organisations. Self-compassion is an integral element, as the act of being kind to oneself allow people to be kind to others, enabling us to find the courage to change our behaviour and focus on what matters[5]. It has been argued that compassion stems from the techniques of mindfulness, through which we can ‘gradually awaken from the movies of our minds’[6]. Similar to mindfulness however, compassion is a word that can attract particular labels such as ‘cuddly nonsense’[7].

Evidence base

Where then is the wider evidence that compassion can not only improve workplace culture and employee wellbeing, but can also help an organisation’s bottom line? There is a body of work that shows that positive social interactions also lead to both physical and mental health benefits[8]. Physiologically, just a few minutes spent mingling with co-workers daily has been shown to lower heart rate, blood pressure, and decrease psychological distress.

There is also evidence that compassion breeds compassion: cooperative behaviour can cascade in human networks, with those treated kindly wanting to extend generosity towards others[9].Those who experience compassionate leadership at work are more likely to report affective commitment to their organisation and to talk about it in positive terms. Line managers who perceive that their organisation values their wellbeing may also be more likely to show supportive behaviour towards the people they manage. Employees who believe that their superiors care about their wellbeing can also be more satisfied with their jobs and show higher organisational commitment.

Finally, research shows that if managers seek loyal employees, they should choose kindness and compassion over toughness[10]. Evidence exists that employees like and trust managers who show kindness rather than anger when resolving conflict, which in turn can boost performance, retention, and levels of trust. Qui et al[11] argue that feelings of warmth and positive relationships at work can also have a greater say over employee loyalty than the size of their pay packet. International leadership institute Roffey Park has also developed a compassion at work psychometric tool and has produced research highlighting the benefits of developing compassionate workplaces including boosted staff retention.

IES research

IES has been investigating the impact of mindfulness and compassion on teams, and is currently carrying out a randomised controlled trial with a large public sector organisation, comparing the effects of an individual- versus team-based ‘mental fitness’ intervention for organisational and strategic change. This study builds on previous work focusing on the underexplored links between the impacts of mindfulness on both the individual and the collective levels, with a focus on strategic and organisational change. In 2015, IES carried out a systematic review of mindfulness in support of organisational change. We have also published a briefing paper, held an HR workshop on the pros and cons of mindfulness at work, and recently held an event on ‘Integrating mindfulness and compassion’[12].

As a further contribution to this body of research, IES is planning to develop a series of case studies to develop the UK evidence base for the efficacy and applicability of compassion. Please get in touch if you are interested in taking part.

[1] Hall L, Chapman-Clarke M (eds) (2017), International Journal of Mindfulness and Compassion at Work, Vol. 1, No. 1

[2] International Journal of Mindfulness and Compassion at Work (2017), ‘The 1st International Summit for Mindfulness and Compassion at Work’, International Journal of Mindfulness and Compassion at Work [Online]. Available at:

[3] Morin A (2015), ‘Introducing A Little Compassion To Your Workplace Culture Has Big Benefits’, Forbes [Online]. Available at:

[4] Poorkavoos M (2017), Compassionate Leadership: What is it and why do organisations need more of it?, Roffey Park

[5] Liebenguth K (2016), ‘Why self-compassion is so important’, Action for Happiness [Online]. Available at:

[6] Goldstein J (2017), ‘Three mean to peace: Mindfulness, compassion and wisdom’, Lion’s Roar [Online]. Available at:

[7] Orendor A (2017), ‘How To Make Mindfulness A Working Advantage (And Not Just Cuddly Nonsense)’, Fast Company [Online]. Available at:

[8] Heaphy E D, Dutton J E (2008), 'Positive social interactions and the human body at work: Linking organizations and physiology’, Academy of Management Review, Vol. 33, No. 1

[9] Fowler J H, Christakis N A (2010), ‘Cooperative behavior cascades in human social networks’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 107, No. 12

[10] Goleman D (2017), ‘Want a loyal team? Choose kindness over toughness’, LinkedIn Pulse [Online]. Available at: want-loyal-team-choose-kindness-over-toughnessdaniel- goleman/

[11] Qiu T, Qualls W, Bohlmann J, Rupp D E (2009), ‘The effect of Interactional fairness on the performance of cross-functional product development teams: A multilevel mediated model’, Journal of Product Innovation Management, Vol. 26, No. 2

[12] Institute for Employment Studies (2017), ‘Integrating mindfulness and compassion’, Institute for Employment Studies [Online]. Available at: