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UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 5 | Mar. 7, 2002

Compassion heightens workplace performance, research suggests

Caring companies make for loyal employees, say scholars

by Helen Lewis staff writer

The responses to the tragedy of Sept. 11 were poles apart. When seven TJX employees died aboard one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center, the president and CEO acted quickly. He gathered his staff and broke the news, called in grief counsellors and chartered a plane to bring the victims' relatives to the company's Massachusetts headquarters.

Employees were offered time off, but most chose to keep working and supporting each other following the attacks.

By contrast, the heads of a publishing company close to ground zero declared "business as usual" immediately after the disaster, giving scant support to employees. One editor was called at home early on Sept. 12, her bosses demanding to know why she was late for a meeting. Her loyalty to the company, she says, began trickling away that day.

How companies like these show -- or fail to show -- compassion to employees in pain is being studied at CompassionLab, a joint project of UBC and the University of Michigan (UM).

CompassionLab -- a diverse group of researchers rather than a bricks-and-mortar facility -- includes UBC Commerce Prof. Peter Frost, UM Business School Prof. Jane Dutton, UBC Commerce Asst. Prof. Sally Maitlis, and Jason Kanov, Monica Worline and Jacoba Lilius of UM's Psychology Dept.

CompassionLab examines the importance and the effects of compassion in the workplace and it's an area of research that is increasingly in demand, says CompassionLab co-founder Frost. "These days we depend on people's intellectual and emotional capacity to get a competitive edge, so we need to look at people as an investment, not a cost. And if you're investing in people you must invest in the whole person, not just their hands or their brains," he says.

"A growing body of research shows when organizations put people first, their performance on almost all indicators is better. In times of trauma, people aren't focused on their job or their organization -- they're focused on the pain. But if people are cared for when they're vulnerable, it makes it possible for them to move on more quickly and become productive again."

CompassionLab's work does not focus solely on responses to Sept. 11. Pain in the workplace existed long before that, the researchers say, and comes in different forms.

On an individual scale, an employee may be diagnosed with cancer, lose a family member or face divorce, while examples of larger-scale trauma include natural disasters, fire destroying a manufacturing plant or mass layoffs.

The lab's "subject" organizations have been chosen by recommendation -- Cisco, Newsweek and Macy's were identified as organizations showing compassion -- and by direct invitations from companies.

"It's early days but we've got rich data and some very provocative hypotheses which we'll be able to take further with the extensive data we're collecting in organizational sites," Frost says.

For more information about CompassionLab and compassionate workplaces, visit www.compassionlab.com.


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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