Compassion in the Workplace Improves Morale, Productivity

Medical Post
Helping Hand Column, May 6, 2008

I was speaking to a younger colleague last week who stopped me in the hall to thank me. She had just taken on a position as her department’s residency program director and was really enjoying it. Her youngest child had just started junior kindergarten and “normal life had begun again.”

She expressed her gratitude for how her department chairman had supported her over the past several years. While she was a resident, he had recognized her potential and offered her a job upon completion of her fellowship. He was congratulatory when she announced each of her pregnancies, and allowed her to adjust her workload as needed. She was told to enjoy her maternity leave and not rush back. When she returned, she was able to work part-time to accommodate her family’s busy schedule.

She told me her department chairman had been so wonderfully supportive that she was forever grateful. “They have invested so much in me; I will do all I can now and be the best attending they have ever had.”

She told me she was thanking me because her chairman had confided to her that he had made a concerted effort to be more supportive after hearing me talk about the benefits of that at a retreat for department chairs. He said I had encouraged them all to support the junior members of the department for a few years, and reassured them they would get back the most dedicated, hard-working colleague in return.

I thought back to my own experience. I was finishing my fellowship, had three babies and was exploring job options. I had asked my department chairman if I could work part-time, but he said all he could offer was a full-time job. Unable to meet the requirements for call, I had to turn down the position and went into private practice. I often reflect on what I could have done as a more active member of the department. I was pleased that this colleague had such a different experience from mine, and thus had a deep sense of belonging and commitment to her department.

Compassion in the workplace is an integral factor leading to improved morale, satisfaction and productivity. It occurs when one notices the pain or need of another, feels empathy and reaches out. The recipient appreciates this, feels a sense of belonging and is motivated to “pay it forward.” Compassion matters and leads to increased retention, improved work satisfaction and commitment.

The value of compassion in the workplace was largely anecdotal until recently. Dr. Jacoba Lilius heads a Compassion Lab at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., where she and her colleagues have explored this issue. Their research indicates compassion occurs with relative frequency, and suggests a relationship between experienced compassion, positive emotion and commitment.

Medical clinics and other organizations can take steps to enable compassion in their work environment. A small effort to encourage compassion among your group, with formal policies that support workers, set healthy norms, highlight examples and role model such behaviour, will lead to a lasting positive impact.

Mamta Gautam is an Ottawa psychiatrist who specializes in treating physician patients. If you have a question you would like addressed in this column, please contact Dr. Gautam at Please include “Helping Hand” in the subject line. All inquiries will be confidential. Your questions will not be replied to, but may be selected to be answered in this column, which is intended to be educational, not therapeutic.