Creating a compassionate workplace

Editor's Note

This article is sponsored by Compassionate Ottawa.

This pandemic has affected everyone. Every aspect of our life seems to have been disrupted. The workplace is a key area in which significant changes have occurred and will continue to evolve. For many, home has become the principal place of work with new challenges and issues emerging.

Employees are anxious to know what the “new normal” may look like. How do I continue to juggle working from home and cope with challenging child care responsibilities? If I return to work, how will I be able to stay safe while still interacting with my colleagues? How do I speak of my ongoing fears for my own and my family members’ health and well being? How do I tell others of my personal difficulties: the death of a loved one, the ongoing anxiety of looking after my frail and aging parents, the uncertainty of my career and the goals I had set? How will I respond to someone else’s difficult experiences?

As individuals continue to cope with changes in their work life and their place of work, employers need to provide new and different supports for their employees. They will be looking for resources and ideas that address emerging areas of change in their organizations. One of the keys to providing support is simple, but not necessarily easy to achieve: communications and conversations. How to communicate understanding and support and how to initiate difficult conversations with employees who may have experienced deep personal losses.

Employers will need tools and tips on what to say and perhaps what not to say to employees who are grieving and suffering loss. Executives, managers and team leaders will need guidance on how to feel more confident themselves to initiate conversations with employees.

Even if COVID-19 had not occurred, employers should be considering how to create a workplace culture that is open, responsive and compassionate to support employees who experience the death of a loved one, loss, grief and bereavement, who provide care to frail and elderly relatives at home or nearby, who feel extreme anxiety at being unable to visit regularly with family members who live a distance away, or who are in long-term care residences. 

What does “Compassion in the Workplace” mean, and why should employers be interested in creating a more compassionate work environment? How can employers provide support, resources and the experience of caring for their employees? How can they work with their employees to create a compassionate work environment in which employees feel safe and comfortable to express their needs so that both their employer and their colleagues might be better able to support each other? 

And with COVID-19 how does this translate to employees working from home? How can an organization be compassionate from a distance? 

We do know that organizations that have created a more compassionate workplace culture to support employees who are dealing with the challenges and issues related to significant changes in their lives are benefitting from enhanced employee engagement and retention, improved productivity, and more open and responsive communications and working relationships.

A 2012 Statistics Canada study pointed out that 35 per cent of Canadian workers (6.1 million people) are struggling to juggle work and caregiving responsibilities. That same study indicated that grieving employees who were not supported at work lost an average of 30 workdays per year. It noted that one in four people are grieving at work right now, and that the death of each person has an impact on at least five other individuals. With the onset of COVID-19, these numbers have increased significantly and the added stress of the pandemic will continue to have a long-term impact on work environments, mental health and work-life balance.

Compassionate Ottawa works with employers who are interested in developing a more compassionate workplace culture. Our objective is to collaborate with organizations to help them determine how to achieve this goal. Compassionate Ottawa, founded three years ago by Jim Nininger, the former CEO of The Conference Board of Canada, and former Ottawa mayor Jackie Holzman is based on a volunteer-driven, grassroots community model of care that aims to create stronger community understanding of compassion.

Our outreach programs focus on four core areas: conversations and advanced care planning, schools, faith communities and workplaces. Our guiding principle is a compassionate Ottawa supports and empowers individuals, their families and their communities throughout life to live well and to die and grieve well. 

In our workplaces program, research and conversations with employers confirm that there are specific practices that can be introduced into the organization to build the foundation for a more compassionate work environment. First and foremost is the leadership that employers demonstrate: establishing a values-based culture, listening to employees’ stories, demonstrating interest in and concern for employees’ personal circumstances, and linking compassionate practices into wellness and mental health programs to ensure effective human resource policies are in alignment with organizational values that contribute to a compassionate work environment.

There are immediate practices that can be adopted to achieve this:

  • Regular one-on-one conversations with employees that include considerations of personal and home life challenges;
  • Supportive and collaborative check-ins with all team members;
  • Zoom meetings that include sufficient time for “how are you doing;” and
  • Webinars and resources that focus on mental health and the importance of self-care and self-compassion.

Compassionate Ottawa has developed workshops for employers and their employees to build awareness and understanding of the benefits and value of creating more compassionate workplaces. Employers recognize that many of their employees may be dealing with personal loss, death and dying, as well as the stress of caregiving for elderly parents, a child or a spouse. Our facilitators can engage with employers to present workshops that focus on starting compassionate conversations in the workplace, as well as conversations on introducing advanced care planning. For the immediate future, these workshops can be held using Zoom technology and resources.

These workshops help build a foundation of openness and trust that enables conversations to be initiated. One of our guiding principles is that each workplace is different and the focus of the discussions will be driven by your culture, your values and the challenges that are most important for your employees. The engagement process begins with a small group of leaders in the organization who will likely become champions for the creation of a compassionate workplace.

We gather their insights, current practices, stories of compassion and support, what is working, where are the gaps. With these insights, we move into the design of a workshop with employees. We gather their stories and ideas for “what will work here.” Are there some specific actions that we can take together to create a more compassionate workplace? These actions and examples are summarized and offered to the organization as next steps in the compassionate journey.

These workshops can be designed to include small group discussions; currently, Zoom offers a platform to enable these to be set up. However, as the “new normal” for the work environment shifts, the workshops and frameworks will evolve to continue to build awareness and support the opportunity for caring conversations within our workplaces.

As the nature of work life and the workplace continues to evolve, Compassionate Ottawa is here to support employers and their employees to build a culture of compassion, care and support in their workplace community.

There are many questions for which we do not have answers. And the answers will be different for every workplace. Compassionate Ottawa volunteers would like to explore them with you, your colleagues and staff and help develop approaches and introduce new practices that will enable you to be more responsive and supportive to your employees’ needs as they deal with dying, death, loss and bereavement as well as the ongoing responsibilities of caring for loved ones.

For additional information on how your workplace can become more compassionate please visit