We need to revive our compassion

An organisation should care because it's in the culture, not because it wants higher productivity or less absence

I recently went looking for something that appears to be on the endangered species list in today’s businesses: compassion. What I found instead was health and wellbeing programmes. Have they become the organisational conscience – a substitute for genuine care and compassion?

Recent experience in my own organisation has driven this home for me. An employee of more than 15 years’ service has been off sick for more than a year. For the first few months they were contacted, asked about, and genuinely missed. After three months this tapered off significantly, and as each week went by contact and demonstrable care visibly waned until it became almost non-existent. After a year the individual became a ‘forgotten’ employee – a former much-loved colleague who newly-appointed staff didn’t even know about, let alone care about.

Recently another ‘lifer’ left my organisation. The collection was embarrassingly small and the leaving party more like a ghost town. It would have been easier getting money from Philip Green for the BHS pension hole than it was getting a pound from staff.

How did this happen and how did we knowingly let it happen? It might not be intentional, but people appear to have stopped caring enough to make the investment in each other. There seems to be an increasing lack of compassion in our society. We seem to be dehumanising other people more and more.

Technology may be partly to blame. We increasingly see other people just as email addresses to reply to, usernames and avatars – and this is reflected in the world of work.

We work more on the move, at home, and generally remotely from one another. Are we dehumanising our colleagues too; seeing them as a pesky email in our already full inbox rather than as a real person?

I think individuals also now care less about their colleagues because they come and go with greater regularity than ever before, even in the more traditional ‘jobs for life’ employers. People are not prepared to make the investment in each other as they don’t see a tangible benefit in doing so.

Yet despite this evident ‘dehumanising’ of the workplace organisations are investing in health and wellbeing programmes to show how much they care about their staff. But how much is this about genuine compassion, which often comes with no financial ROI? Is it not just oil for the machine, to make it go quicker and become more productive?

The impact of health and wellbeing initiatives is measured by hard metrics. When the RCN was shortlisted for a best health and wellbeing programme award a few years ago we were asked to show very clear metrics on how it had affected the bottom line. To be honest we struggled; the programme was introduced first and foremost for compassion and to support staff. We did experience a reduction in sickness absence, but this was not the primary aim. An organisation should care because it’s in the culture to care, not because it wants a higher level of productivity or less sickness absence.

Compassion is not completely extinct – there are still great individuals in great organisations who celebrate and express compassion in a multitude of ways. However, I worry it is on the decline, mirroring the wider world. Ours is a society where people send text messages instead of meeting, tweet rather than talk to each other, and email colleagues who sit next to them.

We are becoming more detached and virtual. While we might work more flexibly and have more time we seem less inclined to spend it with real people. Organisations prefer to focus on the present or the future rather than celebrate contributions long-serving staff have made. HR has a role to play in reviving genuine compassion, by focusing on creating more human workplaces rather than masking the issue with a series of ‘wellbeing’ programmes.

David Cooper is director of organisational capability and change at the Royal College of Nursing