How to cultivate compassionate organisations: an antidote to pandemic trauma

Pandemic trauma is real and we have no idea how to cope with it

Pandemic trauma is real, and we have no idea how to cope with it. There is a 45% increase in employees reporting burnout. Essential workers, including frontline healthcare providers, are at a higher risk for adverse psychological outcomes.

Working mothers, women in senior management positions, and Black women have suffered a great deal of negative career impact due to the pandemic gender effect.  Women in emerging economies are struggling even more; nearly 50% of Americans are anxious about re-entry into their workplaces, and millions of Americans are quitting their jobs.

Our virtual co-workers in other parts of the world continue to struggle with a lack of healthcare infrastructure, including vaccines. Almost 30% of the employees in the global business centres of multinational corporations in India have gotten sick in the second wave of COVID-19. Further, the diasporic population from these countries are going through untold mental trauma exacerbated by helplessness, distance, and the sheer grief from losing so many family members without a goodbye.

To cope with this collective trauma, a pandemic leader needs to develop compassion and learn how to nurture a compassionate organisational culture.

Compassion goes beyond empathy and requires action to help others. A compassionate action may look like taking additional responsibility to support a colleague struggling with family illness. It may look like the corporations that have extended generous benefits to the families of COVID-19 victims in India.

Tata Steel announced that they would pay the salaries of those who died from COVID-19 until their retirement age of 60 and their housing and medical benefits and cover the college tuition of their dependent children.

Foundational to pandemic leadership is a relational and interconnected understanding of our place in the world. As I have found in my research on compassion during disasters, there are both psychological and social processes involved in generating compassion. They are attention-drawing, cognitive framing, emotional arousal, and behaviour modelling.

Generating compassion requires a recognition of others’ suffering and active efforts to alleviate it. To recognise others’ suffering, we must first notice it.

During normal times, organisations can get away without focusing on compassion because they can still mobilise resources and keep functioning even its absence. But a major external event like natural disasters and the pandemic destroy the basic rhythm and fabric of community life and the resulting press to restore and rebuild community infrastructures including the economy and more importantly, the shared life space requires a collective shift in core values than during times of order and status quo.

Compassion is a key resource for resilience and renewal and is antithetical to moral indifference.

How can organisations cultivate compassionate cultures? Here are a few ideas.

Appropriate messaging is key

Communication is essential to two of the compassion processes: emotional arousal and cognitive framing. Neuroscience research demonstrates that both these processes play a key part in shaping people’s mental models and repertoires of behaviours. What you choose to amplify to elicit compassion among people in the organisation.

Recognise that organisations are human collectives and are therefore sites of human emotions, human suffering, human nobility and also human foibles. Highlight the range of human experience in your internal and external communication. We are all capable of great compassion but as research reveals compassion fatigue in people due to overexposure to images and reports of harm to victims that in turn leads to reduced compassion. Scientists suggest a U-shaped relation between message quality and quantity and the felt compassion in observers. Neither too little nor too much.

How to attribute meaning

An important aspect of messaging is cognitive framing. What do we prioritise? How do we frame what is important or valuable? Are we flexible about deadlines? If we are not flexible, are we flexible about working hours? As Sundar Pichai of Google put it, “the future of work is flexibility.”  

In response to Apple CEO Tim Cook’s email about return to work plans, employees have highlighted the relationship between flexibility and inclusivity and pushed back. Who do we frame or deem as more or less worthy of compassion? Here is an opportunity to change these into more expansive and interdependent framings around how we treat ourselves, those who we see as our people and those who we see as others.

Are you your brother’s or sister’s keeper?

In compassionate cultures, people support each other during times of difficulty. However, recognise the collective trauma that the world has gone through in the pandemic, and everyone is exhausted. A few organisations have jumped feet first and provided mental health vacation days to their employees. For instance, my own employer The New School extended the July 4th long holiday weekend to an entire week that has provided some room to exhale for most staff members who have had to be on high alert to support the switch to entire online education during the pandemic.

SAP, the software giant announced a paid mental health day  in recognition of the fact that work-life boundaries have blurred and disappeared during the pandemic. Is one day sufficient recovery period for everyone? But it goes a long way to normalising the organisational imperative to pay attention to the trauma, stress and the need to nurture compassionate cultures as a pandemic leadership imperative.

Pandemic leader behaviour

A pandemic leader must model compassion, beginning with themselves. Actions by formal leaders who have the responsibility to manage the suffering are symbolic in nature. They exhort people to act, model appropriate behaviour and encourage everyone to follow their footsteps. Honour your own humanity. Just like you, people you manage, and lead are human too, and worthy of your compassion.

Even if everyone may not emulate the same kind of compassionate behaviour, people feel encouraged to act similarly when they see other people acting the same. This is called norm matching in social psychology. Emotional contagion is real. Let us make generosity, kindness, and compassion contagious.

Latha Poonamallee, PhD, is an associate professor, chair of the Faculty of Management, and university fellow at The New School. She is also the author of Expansive Leadership: Cultivating Mindfulness to Lead Self and Others in a Changing World.

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