Why kindness at work should be more than just ‘random acts’

Blog posts

20 May 2020

Zofia Bajorek

Dr Zofia Bajorek, Research Fellow 

We have now entered week ‘I don’t know anymore’ of lockdown, and I, like I suspect many other people, have felt a rollercoaster of emotions during this time. On some days, my mental health can change hourly as I still try and get used to my new routine and new way of working. But amongst all this change, Covid-19 anxiety and social distancing, I have been finding some joy in how lockdown has sparked a resurgence in ‘random acts of kindness’ displayed both locally and nationally. The formation of over 200 Covid-19 mutual aid community groups set up to help the vulnerable and those having to socially isolate, seems to be contrary to findings from the ‘Doing Good?’ Mental Health Foundation survey finding that 76% of respondents agreed that society has become less kind and more selfish and materialistic. Could this worldwide pandemic be a springboard of change to how people treat each other? This week is #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek and the theme is ‘kindness’ – and now, more than ever, I really believe we should try and think about what employers can do to show kindness in lockdown life.

A small, but timely example: At the supermarket this weekend, the security guard trying to maintain social distancing in the shop was shouted at by a customer, getting frustrated that they had to wait a little longer to enter the shop. The supermarket manager heard what was happening and stepped in to support their colleague – to the security guard’s relief. During my shop, I bought some extra chocolate and on leaving the supermarket I left them at the security guard’s table. He appreciated the gift but shouted “I have to check with my manager to see if I can accept them”. The manager responded immediately, “Don’t question it, just enjoy them – you deserve them”. Well done that manager!

There is a growing evidence base supporting the role of ‘kindness’ at work. In a study by the University of California researching workers in Coca Cola’s Madrid headquarters, results found that kindness had a ‘positive ripple affect’ across the workplace culture. Random acts of kindness undertaken by a sub-set of the participants – however small or seemingly insignificant, acted as a buffer during stressful and difficult working conditions. Employees in the study reported higher levels of life and job satisfaction and fewer depressive symptoms. The participants reported higher levels of autonomy and felt more competent in the workplace. Finally, the kindness displayed led to an increase in ‘prosocial’ behaviour – employees felt part of a unit, cared for and looked after by their workplace.

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in for many, a change to the way they work. Lockdown meant that for many, working from home has become the ‘new normal’ and has led to periods of adjustment. This has been easier for some more than others. The interim results from our Home Worker Wellbeing Survey found that employees were indicating emotional concerns over feelings of loneliness and isolation, finances and family health and wellbeing. We also found that respondents were working long and irregular hours, felt under too much pressure to work and did not have enough time to work.

One of the important survey findings was about the role of line managers – respondents who had more contact with their line managers also reported improved wellbeing. So, is now the time for managers to display kindness more than ever? Statistics from Japan last week indicated that suicide levels for April had reduced – one of the reasons being was that during lockdown employees were not being bullied by their managers. We know that bullying is a problem, but Marie Unanue, a ‘kindness advocate’, also said ‘the lack of kindness is just as big of a problem’. Displaying kindness can make better managers – those who display warmth are viewed as more effective, garner employee trust and can improve employee productivity. Kindness at work can be displayed in a number of ways: Supporting one another; recognising people’s successes and the contribution of the work they do; timely and helpful feedback and showing that you care. There are ways through which kindness can be practically demonstrated during this time also, recently highlighted by my colleague Dan Lucy in his blog, including kindness in performance management, balancing work and staff needs flexibly, and striking the balance between doing the right things and doing things right. Importantly, Dan highlighted the significance of recognising these challenges and responding in the right way – listening.

Being kind is not just about being kind to others, take time to be kind to yourself as well. I don’t want to use the phrase ‘these are unprecedented times’ – but they are, and turbulence and change are going to be a feature of the next few months of recovery and ‘return’ as well. Is it time to start practising self-compassion and recognising what we have been achieving over these last few weeks? Protecting our own mental health is going to be just as central to coping and recovering from the pandemic – so do be kind to yourself too.

It can be argued that during this time showing kindness at work is a managerial strength and a competence that is to be admired and promoted, instead of being a sign of managerial weakness. And maybe, when we think about the lessons learnt from this pandemic, kindness (and not just random acts of kindness) should be a cornerstone of management at work.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.