Compassion During Crisis

In times of crisis, a culture of collective empathy is key to keeping employees authentically engaged

The start of the COVID-19 pandemic brought a lot of uncertainty—for individuals and for organizations.

While individuals were trying to make sense of the pandemic on a personal level, companies were trying to figure out how to survive.

Co-author Elijah Wee

“What is most helpful during times like this is for employees to voice their opinions so that organizations can make difficult, complex decisions better,” says Elijah Wee, an assistant professor of management at the University of Washington Foster School of Business. “Yet, employees are less likely to share their ideas during a disruption because they view it as risky. It’s kind of a paradox.”

How can organizations support employees so they feel comfortable speaking up during times of disruption? According to a recently published paper by Wee and Ryan Fehr, a professor of management and Michael G. Foster Endowed Fellow at Foster, the answer is collective compassion.

A team endeavor

Wee and Fehr define compassion as recognizing someone’s suffering and doing something to alleviate the pain.

To learn how compassion on a team level affects employee voice during a crisis, they studied a Singapore hotel chain as it coped with the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

They found that the employees who assessed the pandemic as more disruptive to their lives were more likely to experience higher levels of individual suffering, which then elevated their dependence on their supervisors for valued resources. Because of this increased reliance on their supervisors, those employees tended to be more conforming and spoke up less.

By shifting the focus to the collective, the effect of compassion is amplified as a team norm to support each other during widespread disruption.”

Elijah Wee

When team compassion was higher, however, the compassionate behaviors and resources from the group acted as a stopgap between the issues that the member experienced around COVID-19 and the suffering the member would otherwise experience.

Overall, the research showed that higher team compassion weakened the negative effect of pandemic disruption on employee voice behaviors.

“It’s not about one team member being compassionate to the person that is suffering, but the team asking what it’s going to do together to alleviate that suffering for its members,” Wee explains. “By shifting the focus to the collective, the effect of compassion is amplified as a team norm to support each other during widespread disruption.”

Fighting compassion fatigue

Collective compassion doesn’t develop overnight. It requires a reservoir of compassion to start with, Wee explains. But with the effects of COVID-19 felt worldwide, it made sense to study this type of compassion and how it can impact the health of an organization.

“The pandemic disrupted every single aspect of our lives—not just work, but social and family lives,” he says. “We could all recognize the universal suffering. I think that makes it slightly easier to demonstrate some level of compassion.”

But as the world adjusts to life with new variants and extended masking, we’re starting to see the tail end of the compassion tank for pandemic-related struggles. After two years, it feels like it’s time to move on and get back to business as usual. But that’s not possible, Wee says.

Co-author Ryan Fehr

“It’s important to think about the level of compassion that is needed to move us forward,” he says. “That’s because individual suffering is everywhere, even without the pandemic.”

Before the pandemic, people were more likely to try to leave their suffering at the door. Your co-worker may be going through a medical crisis or mourning the loss of a loved one, and you might not know it. Wee asserts that must change.

“I think one helpful thing to come from the pandemic is realizing that suffering is just part of our human experience,” he says. “And companies that do well are the ones that demonstrate high levels of compassion.”

The upside of empathy

When there’s a destructive event, it’s human nature to try to make sense of everything that is happening, and eventually normalize it. One way Wee says team and organizational leaders can help create a compassionate environment is to let employees make sense of disruptions like the pandemic on their own. Disruptive events can change employees’ perception of their relationship with their leaders, especially in terms of dependence on their leaders for valued resources. 

“I think sometimes managers try to do the sense-making and tell employees what the disruptive means,” says Wee. “But it’s important to remember that everyone will have a very different interpretation of what’s happening and its consequences.”

What can help in those situations is providing flexibility of work, as well as collectively talking about the challenges and the suffering. Wee also says it’s good to ask for some level of compassion.

“Compassion is always seen as something you receive,” he adds. “But asking for help can encourage individuals to empathize or see things from your perspective.”

This can help build an environment where everyone feels comfortable letting others know they’re having a rough day or going through a crisis. That’s not just good for the individual employee or the team. It’s also good for the organization.

“When it’s not just the individual responsibility, it builds the cohesiveness of the team,” says Wee. “That team compassionate behavior alleviates the individual’s experience with suffering, and increases their voice in the end.”

Kristin Anderson Kristin Anderson Associate Director of Stakeholder Communications & Relations Foster School

Kristin Anderson is the associate director of stakeholder communications & relations at Foster. After graduating from Boston University, she worked in broadcast news in Texas, Alaska and Seattle before joining the Foster School. Kristin enjoys running, camping, traveling and catching a movie at SIFF.