Science of Compassion: Business & Compassion Part 2

By increasing the tone of the parasympathetic nervous system and decreasing the tone of the sympathetic nervous system, we are brought into true balance. This is done through compassion.
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In my previous blog regarding stress in the workplace, I discussed the deleterious effects of stress on job performance and health. But how can this be done? Clearly, the solution is bringing into balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. By increasing the tone of the parasympathetic nervous system and decreasing the tone of the sympathetic nervous system, we are brought into true balance. This is done through compassion.

In a compassionate workplace, employees are fulfilled, committed, and engaged, leading to maximal productivity. While individual employees can use a variety of techniques to decrease the effects of stress at work, ultimately employers must also create the right job environments that offer challenging jobs with attainable goals that result in the right amount of stress without excessive fear or overwork on a chronic basis.

How do we get there?

Top-Down Approach: Addressing Stress at the Organizational Level

  • Organizations need managers and leaders who create a sense of trust, whereby the employees can rely on the word of supervisors and interact with them in a direct, straightforward manner. Employees must recognize that companies can have setbacks requiring change in responsibilities or downsizing. It is dealing honestly and in a forthright fashion that separates the ethically responsible well-managed company from the mismanaged one. And the latter pays a significant price.
  • Employees must feel that they are valued, respected, and recognized as an important part of the company regardless of their role. Participation in decision making also matters. Employees, like all humans, need to have a sense of being in some control of their environment. Of course none of us have complete control, but being given some decision-making responsibilities has a huge impact in decreasing stress, increasing performance, and ultimately improving life satisfaction.
  • A sense of contribution to something larger than oneself is an essential aspect of life satisfaction. Creating a work environment where one feels they are impacting the world in a positive way is one solution. Organizations can create a sense of value by linking employees to those who use or benefit from their products. Beyond the job itself, another way to bolster a sense of contribution is to support activities that support the community where the company is located or causes that have a positive impact on society. Multiple studies have demonstrated the power of such programs to give meaning to employees and in doing so to increase their loyalty to their employer and to create an overall sense of life purpose while also decreasing stress.
  • Finally, a radical reconsideration of the types of goals that human work espouses and the rewards it offers have to be reconsidered. Economic systems and market logic may not be applicable to every human decision, and radical transparency may help people better understand their values, and live lives consistent with these values. Furthermore, employees should consider their personality and strengths before aspiring to a position that does not suit their disposition. This is critical to engender environments where employees flourish at work. Seeking increase in compensation and more important titles while offering certain benefits can also create situations that increase stress and decrease work performance. Employees must also recognize that success is not necessarily related to income or title.

Bottom-Up Approach: Addressing Stress at the Individual Level

I have just emphasized how a top-down approach can work to create employee well-being: now let's briefly discuss how a bottom-up approach can also be effective.

One intervention that is increasing in popularity is mindfulness meditation. Meditation that emphasizes non-judgmental awareness of the present moment while decreasing fear and anxiety leading to increasing tone of the parasympathetic nervous system. A key aspect of any such practice is the development of self-compassion, which decreases self-criticism and thus promotes a sense of well-being. Kristin Neff has been at the forefront of this work.

Emotional Intelligence
The work of Daniel Goleman and others has made the importance of emotional intelligence (EI) evident. It not only emphasizes knowledge of one's internal emotional states, but also self-regulation to allow for better executive function including impulse control and thoughtful reasoning. Not only does EI lead to increased intra-personal skills but also interpersonal skills like empathy and improved awareness of others. This can lead to increased adeptness at responding to others in a positive way. EI research has demonstrated that when such techniques are implemented there is an increase in work performance, happiness and contentment, along with improved leadership skills. In fact, one study demonstrates that emotional competencies are twice as important in regard to success in the workplace as pure intellect and occupational expertise.

To highlight the ever-increasing interest in the business world regarding compassion in the workplace as a method of decreasing stress and increasing productivity, the Academy of Management Review devoted its October 2012 issue to this topic. On April 30, 2013, our center at Stanford University, the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) will be sponsoring a conference (the first of its kind) entitled Compassion and Business. We will bring together leading researchers and business leaders to promote a dialogue around cutting-edge research and best practices that promote a compassionate workplace. Stay tuned for blogs featuring our prominent speakers to see how compassion can be used to curb stress in the workplace and increase productivity. To learn more about the conference, please visit our website at

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