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Why You Need to Demand a Compassionate Workplace


I’m a huge fan of the show This is Us. Every Tuesday, I’m perched on my couch with my tissues ready for the emotional roller coaster.

One of the storylines centers around Randall, who is a bit of a workaholic, struggling with work/life balance while caring for his father with end-stage cancer. Ultimately, this leads to Randall having a severe anxiety attack that lands him in the hospital. About a week after Randall is released from the hospital, his father passes away.

During his absence from work for both his hospitalization, Randall’s job called him and texted him with questions. And the day before his father’s memorial service, work sends him a basket of pears, which he’s allergic to. On the day of his father’s memorial service, they text him again — acknowledging that they were bothering him but still asking for immediate answers to their needs.

Outrageous???? Yes … yet not all that uncommon.

During my 20 years in HR, I’ve experienced and heard so many stories like this. Some stories were even worse.

When a highly valued and dedicated employee has to take time away from work unexpectedly, managers are often devastated and confused. They cannot figure out how to function without the person. They cannot imagine the person would be unwilling to help. They cannot understand how someone who has always been so reliable could suddenly become completely unavailable.

It is this kind of thinking that makes FMLA regulations still very much necessary in our workplaces. If we want less government guidelines dictating our actions in this area, we have to do better in our workplaces.

We have to demand compassion.

The first thing we do to demand compassion in our workplaces is to model appropriate work/life balance. As managers, we have to work appropriate hours, take time off periodically for rest and give reasonable deadlines … We cannot give assignments on Friday, say the work is due Monday then act surprised when our employees end up with overtime after working the weekend. And if we do, we cannot be angry when they leave early or come in a little later or take off another day. 

If we are modeling work/life balance, we are making allowances for this and encouraging it when necessary.

The next thing we have to do to demand compassion in our workplaces is to cross-train duties and have back-ups for our positions. No one person should be the only one with the knowledge and authority to complete major tasks in the organization. And compassionate workplaces know that burden is too much for one person to bear … We cannot expect one person to develop all the strategies, organize all the projects, implement all the programs and communicate all the outcomes without assistance while feeling no pressure. And if we do, we cannot be surprised when all our efforts come to a halt because that person takes leave. 

If we are modeling work/life balance, we make sure responsibilities are evenly distributed and that a second-in-command has been appointed.

The final thing we have to do to demand compassion in our workplaces is never pressure a person who is dealing with a traumatic life event to return to work before they are ready. These tactics only ever have negative impact. Compassionate workplaces know this approach is not going to yield high levels of performance or long-term loyalty. It will only result in causing a dedicated employee to lose all respect for the organization and people they once worked so hard for. 

If we are modeling work/life balance, we trust the individual to be respectful and responsible and to tell us what they’ll need and what they are capable of.

When we demand compassion and model work/life balance, our employees feel free to take the time they need so they return to work as the best version of themselves. This is what we all truly want. Only demanding compassion can make that happen.

On This is Us, the hurt from the careless handling of his illness and bereavement was too much for Randall to reconcile. He quit in epic fashion.

This video shows his exit speech. If you’ve ever pressured anyone to work or return to work when they were dealing with a life trauma, I promise you that they’ve said this to you in their mind and heart.

Don’t ever let that happen again. Demand compassion.

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