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  • Writer's pictureFelicity Baker

Resilience Quick Reads: Kindness at Work – Mental Health Awareness Week 2020

Updated: Sep 16, 2022

Welcome to the latest in our series of short blogs to help you stay safe, sane, and supported during the current crisis. In our second blog on kindness for Mental Health Awareness Week, we are looking at the importance of kindness at work.

Under the current circumstances, many of us will be experiencing raised anxiety regarding work. Some will be facing new pressures and demands related to home working and some will be feeling uncertain about safety in the workplace. Whatever the source, this anxiety is likely to affect our wellbeing and our work performance. The support that we receive from our workplace will be crucial in helping us to move through these challenges.

Why is kindness important at work?

In western culture we tend to view the work environment as a place to get things done, meet deadlines and achieve targets. It can be hard to see what role kindness has to play in these drive-centred activities. We often think of kindness as a ‘soft’ skill, a bit fluffy, hard to define and certainly not an attribute that is central to getting the job done.

However, where kindness is lacking in the work environment, where staff feel they are seen as just a part of the machine and the emotional impact of the work is not recognised or supported, health and wellbeing suffers.

When we experience kindness from others, we learn to trust them. In this way, kindness is at the heart of our ability to collaborate, co-operate and depend on each other.

As infants, these trusting relationships help us learn to regulate threat emotions, to self-soothe. As adults, experiencing kindness and compassion from others creates similar feelings of trust and safety that strengthen us to face new challenges, explore and create.

Kindness is important in helping us to manage anxiety, remain calm and build positive emotions through difficult times. When our managers treat us with kindness, when they are genuinely interested in the challenges we are experiencing and are able to respond to us with compassion, we are more likely to feel calm, confident and equipped to do our job.

Where kindness is built into the work environment, we see the development of strong trusting relationships. These relationships are at the heart of our ability to innovate, to work together towards the common good, to survive challenges and setbacks and ultimately to share successes.

In a study of why nurses leave the profession, Menzies Lyth, concluded that the success of a social institution is linked to the way it deals with and contains anxiety. By putting in place structures to support staff, allowing them space and time to process the emotional demands of the work, organisations provide a sense of safety and security that allows staff to manage work demands and perform effectively.

This conclusion is corroborated by other research in the health sector that highlights the need for a caring approach that places high value on compassionate leadership and the adoption of kindness and compassion throughout the organisation.

Intelligent kindness

As kindness is commonly seen as unconnected with success or productivity it is often overlooked within workplace culture. The various myths surrounding compassionate leadership can raise fears among senior managers, who then dismiss the value of kindness, or actively defend against it by perpetuating negative messages about the place of emotions in the work environment.

As a counter to these myths, Penelope Campling identifies ‘intelligent kindness’ as a sophisticated organisational framework which contributes to the purposeful development of managerial, leadership and organisational skills and systems that promote compassion in the workplace. The result is a binding, creative and problem-solving force that inspires creativity, imagination and goodwill. Rather than undermining productivity, this leads to greater commitment, co-operation and success.

This view is consistent with psychologists’ understanding of the role of kindness in our strong attachment relationships. Throughout our lives, these relationships function to support us through the challenges we face, enabling us to emerge stronger and more resilient as a result.

At work, when our managers and leaders engage in intelligent kindness and promote compassion, we feel safe. We know that we are valued and appreciated and not seen as just cogs in the wheel. We are able to manage our anxiety, are motivated to work together with others and are better able to reflect on and manage problems along the way.

How can we bring intelligent kindness into work?

If a workplace values compassion or kindness, and this is built into the fabric of the organisation, employees at all levels are encouraged to be attentive and attuned to each others’ experience. In this way a positive spiral or, as Campling calls it, a virtuous circle of kindness, is created.

When leaders use intelligent kindness, they are able to listen, to attune to the challenges faced by those they lead, to collaborate in a shared understanding, to show empathy and care and to ultimately take action to help or support their staff.

These skills facilitate more authentic and effective interactions, building strong relationships and trust, which calms anxiety and builds confidence throughout the workforce.

To achieve this might seem simple. In fact, it takes courage to listen openly to the emotional and physical challenges staff face in their roles, to hear stories of abuse or bullying, the impact of staff shortages, grief or loss or inadequate resources.

Hearing these messages can raise our own anxiety as leaders, particularly when we don’t see quick or easy solutions, when our own perceptions or plans are challenged.

So, in order to live the values of intelligent kindness, to introduce compassionate leadership, leaders need first to build skills to manage their own stress and anxiety. They need to build self-compassion, taking time to attend to their own challenges and take action to calm themselves.

When we are calm, our brains are not on high alert for threat, and we can attend more fully to the people we manage or lead. At these times we can let go of unhelpful coping and bring intelligent kindness to those we work with, offering care and support.

If you found this helpful and would like to find out more about coping in a crisis, check out some of the other blogs in this series. You might also like to join our Facebook group UR Resilient, where members are busy sharing creative and inspiring ideas for staying positive during this challenging time.

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