Compassion and Suffering in the Workplace

Cynicism. Blame. Going through the motions. If you’ve ever experienced these patterns of negativity in your job, then you know something about suffering in the workplace.

Conflict and suffering will always be a part of any workplace. But that doesn’t mean blame has to be the response to overwhelm, or that engagement can’t win out over disconnect and monotony.

Instead of eliminating suffering, our task is to to suffer better.

This means suffering well together.

We suffer well by 1) being aware of suffering in the workplace; 2) having empathy, or connecting emotionally to workplace suffering; and 3) acting to alleviate suffering. Another word for this powerful response is compassion.

I take my definition of compassion, or “suffering well,” from emotion researchers. Before we’re motivated to act with compassion, we have to see suffering, and we have to emotionally connect. The fact that, in any given situation, one person may be motivated to compassion and another person may not, brings up the core question of perspective.

What’s the difference between the person who acts with compassion and the person who doesn’t act at all? Which one are we—and why?

The best answer I’ve found for what lies behind our compassion (or lack thereof) relates to my mantra, “we live our lives in stories.” I believe that the quality of our stories determines the quality of our compassion.  

The questions we ask ourselves in the face of workplace suffering—Do I believe in the validity of my coworker’s suffering? What’s my role in relation to that suffering? Do I have the capacity to respond?—get their answers from whatever story we’ve been telling about who our coworkers are and about the workplace dynamic we share.

For example:

  • The person who sees suffering, feels empathy, but hesitates to act...may not see their coworker as a peer in a shared, human work story. This person underestimates their own capacity to help, taking for granted simple human gestures, like the power of a smile.

  • The person who sees suffering and is unable to connect emotionally...may not see their coworker as more than an emotional drain. This person may be overwhelmed by compassion fatigue, lacking enough self-care.

  • The person who fails to see suffering at all...may not see their coworker as a protagonist in a story of their own right. This person’s perspective is likely self-centered, too narrow to see other stories unfolding.

Our narrative is our perspective.

Here’s an example, to close:

A technician was working solo on a critical task for his company, when he was made aware of a family crisis situation that made it difficult for him to continue. His boss had a few response options:

1) “We can’t afford this—you’ve got to man up and finish.”

2) “Take the morning off, and then go back this afternoon.”

3) “Go do what you need to do; we’ll find someone to take care of it.”

I’m glad to say this boss picked the third option. By following up with support and exploring ways to make sure this employee had the resources he needed, this boss chose to fully engage in workplace compassion.

Option three initially looked like the most costly scenario for the company. But in the long run, with consideration for this employee’s well-being and retention, option three was ultimately the least costly.

In my experience, this kind of individual response to workplace suffering actually works for the flourishing of everyone. In fact, compassion—just like that—has a way of accomplishing some of our very best work.

— Steve

How have you imagined your part in the workplace suffering you encounter?

Can you imagine a storyline in which your role is compassion?  

My recommended resource: Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organizations by Monica C. Worline and Jane E. Dutton.

Counterstories is a blog collaboration between conflict resolution specialist Steve Beck and writer/editor Rachael Schmid. If you have a powerful story of forgiveness or peacemaking (or just want to share your thoughts on this post), we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at