Why You Should Love Thy Coworker

By Kira M. Newman | April 6, 2015 | 0 comments

A new study suggests that fostering compassion among health care workers might improve the quality of patient care.

Why should companies care about caring? In the realm of business culture, you’re more likely to hear about intellectual concepts like innovation, creativity, or transparency.

But a recent study published in Administrative Science Quarterly suggests that a positive emotional culture at work—what might be dismissed as “touchy-feely”—is associated with benefits for customers and employees. And when their satisfaction goes up, profits usually follow.

Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the George Mason University School of Business examined what they call a “culture of companionate love,” which involves feelings of affection, compassion, caring, and tenderness among co-workers at long-term care facilities. Though less intense than romantic love, the strong emotions involved still help create bonds between people.

“Imagine a pair of coworkers collaborating side-by-side, each day expressing caring and affection toward one another, safeguarding each other’s feelings, showing tenderness and compassion when things don’t go well, and supporting each other in work and non-work matters,” the study authors explain.

Their study of companionate love looked at 13 units of a long-term care facility in the northeastern United States, a total of 185 employees (including nurses, doctors, social workers, and food service workers). They also surveyed 108 patients and 42 family members, mainly to measure the impact of work culture on the quality of care.

The culture was measured using questionnaires, and 16 months later the researchers checked in with each group. It turned out that a strong culture of companionate love predicted benefits all around: less burnout, fewer unplanned absences, more teamwork, and higher work satisfaction for employees; fewer emergency room trips and higher mood, satisfaction, and quality of life for patients; and more satisfaction with the facility and willingness to recommend it for families.

It must be noted that, given the study’s methodology, these results don’t prove that a culture of compassionate love causes these kinds of benefits, only that they’re somehow related.

Caring is part of the job description in health care, particularly in long-term care facilities, where residents may struggle with feelings of boredom, loneliness, and dependence. But could a culture of companionate love be associated with benefits in other industries as well?

To test this, the study authors surveyed over 3,200 employees from other industries about their culture, and found some initial support: stronger cultures of companionate love meant more job satisfaction, commitment to the organization, and accountability for work performance.

The authors do inject a note of caution. “It is possible that employees who are too affectionate, caring, compassionate, and tender with one another might be more likely to ignore unethical behavior on the part of their co-workers because they do not want to jeopardize their co-workers’ jobs,” they write.

What’s more, organizational culture isn’t the same thing to everyone; different groups experience different parts of it, and experience it in different ways. In the study, ratings by employees, families, and outsiders were similar but not the same. Office decor typically matters less to customers than to staff, for example, though the effects may trickle down.

Even so, the research to date raises the possibility that there could be attractive benefits to fostering a sense of care and compassion in the office.

The key is leadership, argue the researchers. “For decades, management scholars have encouraged leaders to take ownership of their cognitive culture,” they write. “Similarly, leaders would do well to think about and take ownership of emotional culture.”

This may come down to simply encouraging people to express themselves. Culture is built on thousands of simple gestures and comments—the difference between encouraging employees to share their struggles and telling someone to get back to work, between a compassionate smile and a raised eyebrow. Where and when appropriate, more touch can communicate warm and positive feelings that we might have suppressed before. Employees can decorate and personalize their desks, add some color and art to the walls, and start rituals of celebration around birthdays or work anniversaries.

As this study suggests, such steps might not only be associated with happier health care workers. It may also be linked to the quality of service employees provide to patients and customers.

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About The Author

Kira M. Newman is an editor and web producer at the Greater Good Science Center. She is also the creator of The Year of Happy, a year-long course in the science of happiness, and CaféHappy, a Toronto-based meetup. Follow her on Twitter!


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