Encouraging self-compassion for men at work

Self-compassion involves noticing your own distress and doing something about it

There are so many different challenges that we can face at work. Some of these are to do with the type of work we do. For example, having too much work on our plate, or projects that are high in stress and low in control. Sometimes the type of work we do can be emotionally draining, or even physically draining or dangerous.

Poor workplace culture and staff mental health

For some of us, our work is lacking stimulation – it’s repetitive and boring. But we can also experience the challenges of working with people. This can be a boss who is critical, bullying, or uncaring; leaders who are more bothered about profit and performance than the wellbeing and health of their staff. Or work colleagues who are rude, selfish, or overly competitive.

If a workplace is toxic, this is a serious issue, as over time this toxicity will lead to a variety of difficulties to individual employees, team culture and morale, and ultimately performance.

Workplaces that are performative – and very masculine-driven – are fine as long as this isn’t the only version of what the organisation can be. Too much focus on competition and performance can ultimately create a culture that is focused on individual success, hypercompetition, and social comparison amongst colleagues.

In short, this creates a ‘me first’ perspective which might bring short-term profit but ultimately can lead to culture problems, staff retention issues, and mental health distress.

Clearly, this isn’t just an issue for men, but given that workplace leadership is still predominantly male-dominated, and that many men have been exposed to cultures in which they are expected to be always coping, capable, and competent, the pressure of certain workplaces can lead to significant problems.

Given that 1 in 7 of us experience mental ill-health in the workplace, many struggle to speak about the struggles they face.

For example, a US study found 62% of people feared being judged by their boss if they took time off for mental health problems. Given how hard many find it to voice their feelings, emotions, and perceived vulnerability, it’s likely that this figure may be far higher for men.

Men: learning self-compassion

One powerful way that men can start to bring change to this is by learning self-compassion. Although many people think this sounds a bit soft for the workplace, my research and experience shows that they’re wrong.

Self-compassion involves two main things – noticing your own distress and taking wise steps to do something helpful about it. It’s learning how to treat yourself with the same support, kindness, and care as you would a good friend. One helpful way to think about what self-compassion is, is to consider compassion for others.

Whilst this might bring images of someone being warm, kind, and caring (which is one version of how you can be compassionate), a firefighter saving a child in a burning building is also an act of compassion – they are being sensitive to the distress of the child, and taking wise actions to alleviate this. But we’d never describe a firefighter as weak or woolly, in fact, we’d associate qualities like courage and strength.

So when we become compassionate to ourselves, this often involves a type of strength – to turn towards things that we find difficult. And this is certainly the case for men, as turning towards feelings of vulnerability, insecurity or inadequacy is hard, and can take a lot of courage to do so. It can be about recognising and engaging with failure, shame, and sadness, and learning how we can deal with these in flexible, wise ways, rather than just ignoring them or trying to succeed more to avoid these feelings.

And the benefits? Well, hundreds of research studies don’t lie and show that self-compassion has a very positive impact on mental health. First up, various studies have found that it undermines things that we know cause psychological distress – things like self-criticism, worry, rumination, shame, anxiety, and stress. There are lots of ways it does this, including bringing helpful changes to your physiology! But it’s not just about reducing unpleasant things. Research has also found that if you have higher self-compassion, you’re also likely to be:

  • More motivated
  • Able to take more responsibility for setbacks and failures
  • Able to be happier and have higher levels of wellbeing
  • Have better relationships with others

And because of these benefits, self-compassionate employees are likely to have lower levels of burnout, fewer days off sick, and are less likely to look to leave your organisation. And there’s an added benefit that they are more likely to have higher job satisfaction and work performance.

How managers can help staff with self-compassion

There are many ways that employees can be supported in becoming more self-compassionate. There are courses for managers in which they can learn the skills of compassionate leadership, which will also include embodying self-compassion themselves.

From the position of becoming caring and compassionate leaders, the business can look at the structures and processes and see which of these might be contributing to employee distress or difficulties, and start to work on ways to bring changes to these that will support the wellbeing and performance of staff.

This includes creating opportunities for self-compassion in staff, which might be through providing self-compassion workshops, or self-guided tools like the Self-Compassion App.

Mental health matters for everyone, but by supporting employees to learn how to become more compassionate with themselves, not only are you to have staff that are psychologically healthy, but also happy and committed in their day-to-day work.

You can buy the Self-Compassion App, here.

Dr Chris Irons

Dr Chris Irons is the Director of Balanced Minds, a psychological services and resources organisation, and is a clinical psychologist. He is also co-author of the Self Compassion App.

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