Even at work, caring and compassionate relationships matter. Especially at work, it turns out. According to the American Time Use Survey, we spend an average 8.7 hours of every day at work (averaged over all 7 days each week), more than any other single time-use component. This means that if we’re miserable at work, it makes a huge impact on the overall quality of our lives. Although we typically think to look to our non-work relationships for love and support, recent research has shown that feeling this same sense of connection in the workplace can make a big impact. Employees who feel cared for benefit, in terms of satisfaction and wellbeing, employers benefit by having more effective and engaged employees, and a recent study shows that the “customers” they serve do too.
Companionate love refers to a type of emotional culture found in the workplace, as described by Wharton management professor, Sigal Barsade, and George Mason University assistant professor of management, Olivia O’Neill in their study, What's Love Got to Do with It, published in the May 2014 issue of Administrative Science Quarterly. A workplace that shows a culture of companionate love is one in which employees care for one another and relationships are based on warmth, affection and connection.
The study was conducted on a large non-profit long-term healthcare facility and hospital and it measured levels of tenderness, compassion, affection and caring of the employees towards each other, but not necessarily towards their clients. The researchers wondered if employees who treat each other with caring, compassion, tenderness and affection benefit, would those benefits also carry over to residents and their families? Indeed they were.
They found that employees who worked in the units that showed higher levels of companionate love had lower levels of absenteeism and employee burnout. The researchers also discovered that a culture of companionate love among employees led to higher levels of employee engagement with their work via greater teamwork and employee satisfaction. And the patients also derived benefits from these happier employees. In measures of patient quality of life, based on 11 factors commonly used to assess long-term care facilities, including improved patient mood, quality of life, fewer trips to the ER, comfort, dignity and spiritual fulfillment, there was a positive correlation across the board between a culture of companionate love and patient quality of life.
As a former attorney, I’ve considered this study in the context of the profession of law and wrote a recent 2-part piece for AttorneyatWork.com (here and here). Interestingly, after I had submitted my article, and just a few days before my post was published online, Fast Company also ran an article on the benefits of love at work, citing another researcher, Barbara Frederickson, a well-known positive psychologist. Her opinion is also that that love drives employee engagement. “Because those feelings drive commitment and loyalty just like it would in any relationship.”
The Fast Company article offers several things that drive worker engagement, that serve as “emotional currency.” Among other things, they include having a strong bond with our supervisor, and feeling that we are appreciated and cared about as individual human beings, not just as cogs in the corporate wheel. As with so many other components of corporate culture, leadership really matters. It sets the tone and communicates the attitudes expected of all management relationships below, either fostering these types of relationships or squashing them.
So how can leaders learn to offer “love” at work, especially if it doesn’t come naturally? A great place to start is by practicing mindfulness.
Among other things, mindfulness practice helps the individual cultivate self-awareness, emotional regulation, and compassion, and a good leader possesses all three of these qualities. Awareness of your own triggers and habits can allow you to be fully present with what is actually happening, rather than reacting to assumptions on autopilot. Emotion regulation allows you to maintain calm and composed, even in the face of conflict or challenge. And compassion allows you to really connect with other people and care for them, without necessarily being sucked into their emotional storms. As theologian Albert Schweitzer says, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”
Truly excellent leadership is an internal job, and this internal work can provide the foundation for a culture of companionate love in any organization. We’ve seen over and over again how mindfulness practice can improve the individual’s physical and mental wellbeing, both of which also impact the leader’s ability to be effective. A leader has a more difficult time inspiring the troops when she herself is feeling burned out and exhausted. A healthy, connected and engaged leader can make a huge difference for both the organization and the individual employees’ wellbeing and performance.