EngagementCompassion: The heart of HR?

Compassion: The heart of HR?

How can HR prioritize what is at the heart of their mission? Dr. Amy Bradley, Hult International Business School, examines the importance of compassion as a core human value in the work of HR and business leaders.

We live in a culture of ‘busyness’, which means people are so preoccupied with their own tasks and ‘to do’ lists that they have little time to care for themselves, let alone their colleague down the corridor.

Our workplaces are becoming increasingly transactional and increasingly dehumanized where many people feel they are treated as a human resource rather than a human being[1]. With a rise in remote working and virtual teamwork, our reliance on technology as a means of communication means that human moments at work are becoming lost. Opportunities to physically connect with our colleagues are diminishing and the quality of our networks is being weakened. Many of us possess only a superficial understanding of our colleagues and we often have no idea what challenges people around us may be facing in their lives outside work.

At some point in our lives, we will face a difficult life experience, be it separation or divorce, illness, family breakdown or the death of a loved one. According to Cancer Research UK, 50% of the population will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime.[2] As people work longer and retire later, the number of people affected by illness and bereavement is set to rise exponentially. 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 life inevitably affects our motivation, performance and relationships at work, yet employers know little about how to respond.[3] Working people spend as much time with their colleagues as they do with family members; therefore, 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.

When we have the courage to disclose our struggles to our colleagues, our work relationships can profoundly deepen, however many of us work in organisations where the prevailing culture is one in which emotions are not shown or shared. As one HR Director told me recently: “It’s our job to be professional. If my team know I’m having a bad day, then I’ve failed.” Behaving with compassion is not easy. It requires courage to show vulnerability and it can mean challenging industry norms or unquestioned assumptions within our workplaces about what it is acceptable to show or share when it comes to our feelings.  Compassion is not just about being kind to ourselves and others, it also builds the bottom line[4]. Organisations where compassion is both espoused and embedded have been found to generate better financial performance, increased innovation, improved collaboration and teamwork and increased levels of engagement and retention[5].

For compassion to be company-wide, it requires a culture that is conducive and the systems and practices in place to embed it. In consciously compassionate cultures, leaders role-model kindness and the connections between employees are strong. To the cynical among us, compassion may be seen as a subverted way of getting more from employees; however, those leaders and managers who fail to display genuine care are easily spotted and people ultimately speak with their feet. Notwithstanding this cynicism, if we care about each other as human beings, compassion at work is a basic requirement; and the ability to exercise ‘competent compassion’ a key professional skill.[6]

When an individual is going through a difficult time, research has shown that of paramount importance is the support provided by line managers[7], but they need to feel they have the skills and capabilities to do so. In a recent study, only 24% of managers had received any mental health training in the past year.[8]  Line managers should be available for team members and able to create ‘safe spaces’ for people who wish to talk at work about their ongoing struggles. They should be present for the individual, but without making unrealistic demands on them. It is important to be patient with the person concerned, particularly around their performance in the early stages of their return to work and be open to discussing suffering as a universal and shared human experience. When line managers are open themselves, it makes it much easier for others to disclose their own struggles when they happen.[9]

It is important to remember that we are all unique. We all have different personalities, life circumstances and ways of coping. During times of personal difficulty, HR staff should feel able to flex HR policies to allow individuals to take time away from work, if appropriate, and to choose their own point of return. If they are treated as adults, most people will return to work within a timescale that is seen as acceptable. HR professionals need to make sure that they exercise transparency. Every situation is unique, but employees expect fairness, so they need to be comfortable that any decisions taken to suit an individual’s circumstances could be applied again in the same way for someone else.[10] The way in which HR policies are applied has a knock-on effect beyond just the individual concerned and can shape the way other employees view their employer as a result. If an individual is perceived to have been treated unfairly, research has shown that employees question their own commitment to the organisation.[11] It should be HR’s role to support the line manager in being creative with any policies, rather than being seen as ‘the policy police’.

As we move into a world driven by artificial intelligence and automation, human-to-human connections are going to be needed more than ever. Compassion is a core human value, yet it is often overlooked in business and in those organisations where compassion is embedded, it is seen as the foundation for a healthier, happier, more engaged and higher-performing workplace.


Dr Amy Bradley (née Armstrong) is a member of Faculty at Hult International Business School, where she teaches and researches the topics of employee engagement and compassion at work. Amy’s new book, The Human Moment argues that organisations must find ways of becoming more compassionate in an age where our work is increasingly dehumanized. The book is aimed at individuals who want to develop more ‘human’ ways of leading; HR professionals and executive coaches who are looking to support people in the wake of suffering; and people who are struggling at work following a difficult episode in their lives. Based on a decade of research and including examples, stories and case studies, the book argues that compassion is the key to business performance.

[1] Bradley, A (2019), The Human Moment: The Positive Power of Compassion in the Workplace, LID Publishing.

[2] Cancer Research UK (2019) Lifetime Risk of Cancer.

[3] Armstrong, A (2014), ‘I’m a Better Manager’: A Biographic Narrative Study of the Impact of Personal Trauma on the Professional Lives of Managers in the UK, Unpublished PhD Thesis, Aston University.

[4] Hall, A (2015) A Compassionate Work Culture Can Really Benefit the Bottom Line, Too, Huffington Post

[5] Cameron, K; Bright D, and Caza, A (2004) Exploring the Relationships between Organizational Virtuousness and Performance,” American Behavioral Scientist 47(6), pp 766-790.

[6] Lilius, J; Kanov, J; JDutton, J; Worline M, & Maitlis, S (2012) Compassion Revealed, in The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship, eds. Kim Cameron and Gretchen Spreitzer, Oxford University Press, pp. 273-288.

[7] Bradley, A (2019), The Human Moment: The Positive Power of Compassion in the Workplace, LID Publishing.

[8] Business in the Community (2017); Mental Health at Work Report

[9] Petriglieri G and Maitlis, S (2019) Grief is a Universal Human Experience, Harvard Business Review (July–August), pp. 118-123.https://hbr.org/2018/07/how-to-manage-an-employee-whos-having-a-personal-crisis.

[10] O’Hara, C (2018) How to Manage an Employee Who’s Having a Personal Crisis, Harvard Business Review,

[11] Lilius, J; Worline, M; Maitlis, S; Kanov, J; Dutton, J & Frost, P (2008) The Contours and Consequences of Compassion at Work, Journal of Organizational Behavior, 29(2), pp. 193-218.

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