December 21, 2020

Fears of Compassion: Workplace (and beyond) Depression, Stress and Anxiety

Fears of Compassion: Workplace (and beyond) Depression, Stress and Anxiety

Anxiety, depression, and stress (distress) are huge burdens on professional and personal health.  Depression is the most commonly reported workplace disorder.  Employees will more likely experience burnout when they experience work-related stress. Sleep disturbances, difficulty making decisions, problems with concentration, trouble remembering instructions or tasks, fatigue, and lack of interest in tasks are all common symptoms of anxiety and depression that may impact workplace performance.  Understanding sources of employee distress is critical for organizational/personal well-being and may be addressed through an easy, intrinsic tool we all can facilitate, compassion. Interestingly, some regard compassion as a “touchy feely” type of thing, potentially even a weakness. When confronted with the fact compassion is a deeply researched, trainable quality which entails fierce courage many are surprised.

A simple behavioral definition of compassion is:

  1. Noticing suffering (of self and others)
  2. Having an empathic emotional response
  3. Taking action to address the suffering
When managers do not express compassion when conducting layoffs or pay cuts, employees are more likely to file wrongful termination lawsuits, and engage in workplace deviance.  On the other hand, employees are less likely to leave their job if their employer/ leader is prosocial. Pertinent to organizations, compassion is related to prosocial behavior, engagement and organizational citizenship behavior. Compassion also serves a profoundly important evolutionary function, in providing care, nurturance, affiliative bonding, safeness and trust; all of which are central to the survival of our species. Another key aspect is the recognition that compassion is really a three way street: We can extend it to others, we can receive it from others and we can show it to ourselves by practicing self-compassion. Importantly, research shows that Compassion in all three directions is strongly correlated with improved immune system functioning and physical well-being, as well as improved psychological functioning. On a fundamental level, most humans are likely to endorse compassion as something to strive towards. It is part of our political, religious, and ethical worlds, shared in hospitals, schools, workplaces, communities and nations. It takes fierce courage to get in contact with suffering, sustain motivation to address the suffering. Such commitment to be present to, and engaged with suffering is of course hardly a weakness!

Fears of Compassion?

Simple, right? If compassion is so good for us, we can all just engage in it, and all humanity can easily have a better life. So what is getting in our way? Professor Paul Gilbert, the founder of Compassion Focused Therapy has developed a powerful framework for understanding compassion and as importantly, fears of compassion. Extending compassion to others can entail fear of being used, or taken advantage of.  Allowing others to come close and help us can entail fears of being perceived as weak or needy. Fears of Compassion: Workplace (and beyond) Depression, Stress and Anxiety Further, trusting others to support us can also entail the fear they will abandon us, and fail to show up for us when we’ll  need them the most. Understandably, for many people pushing others away, avoidance, can feel safer. Of course, we also push ourselves away from our own caring emotions when we avoid/numb-out, or engage in critical threat based thoughts, rather than being self-compassionate. Current research shows these attitudes can carry grave repercussions.


While it is understandable that our sense of threat and self-protection may lead us towards these fearful responses to compassion, it is also imperative that we recognize the noxious impact of such attitudes. In a recent study we’ve run, replicating and expanding Dr. Gilbert’s European team’s studies with a population (371) of working adults, we’ve found a strong, highly significant relationship between fears of compassion in all three directions and symptomatic markers of stress, depression and anxiety as well as burnout and compassion fatigue.  Given our interest in workplace outcomes, we sadly see a strongly significant relationship between positive leadership capacity and the three fears as well. In other words, the more fearful an individual is of being compassionate the more likely they are to suffer, experiencing psychological and physiological distress. What is more, elevated burnout and compassion fatigue levels result in lower worker well-being and productivity. Adding on top of that lower capacities for positive leadership, we find that the absence of compassion can generate a continuous downward spiral which will manifest on both the individual and collective societal levels. In our next in this series of blogs, we will establish the impact and benefit of this deeper, research based approach to understanding and applying compassion in multiple venues, from personal well-being to workforce productivity, civic engagement to quality of life.