Yep, Chronic Workplace Stress Leads to Burnout…

The World Health Organization has finally recognized burnout as a workplace phenomenon arising from…you guessed it…chronic job stress.  This is something that we’ve all been painfully aware of, but W.H.O.’s inclusion of burnout in its 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases as a workplace phenomenon is a game changer.  

As I mentioned in my TEDx Talk, burnout is very similar to PTSD — which is a de facto disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act in the U.S.  So I speculated that if burnout could be similarly categorized, employers would be required to provide reasonable accommodations to burned out workers.

Employers must start doing something to mitigate the high degree of stress in their workplaces in order to prevent employee burnout.  

In this short video, I’ll share a few of the organizational factors that my research has shown can lead to burnout.

Copyright 2019 G. A. Puleo

5 Ways to Tell If You’re Burned Out (VIDEO)

Are you feeling stressed out …but don’t know if you’re burned out? In this 2-1/2 minute video short, you’ll discover 5 common signs that you might be burning out AND get tips on how to overcome each.

Dr. Geri Puleo is the President/CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc. with a mission to eradicate workplace burnout — once and for all! To learn more, please check out the blogs and eLearning site listed at the end of this video.

How I Educated Myself OUT of the Job Market

Research Scholar Practitioner

I’ve always been a believer that knowledge is power and that it provides opportunities that might otherwise be overlooked.  Never in my wildest dreams did I believe that his knowledge and experience would be a disadvantage in the job market.

Let me explain:  I’m one of those professionals who has led a dual-career track.  I’m an entrepreneur with a successful track record in coaching and training as well as a professor who has taught traditional and nontraditional students at universities.

In other words, I’m truly a scholar-practitioner (or practitioner-scholar, depending upon your viewpoint) whose model for eradicating workplace burnout is based on scientific research.

When I recently faced a significant financial hit arising from administering my father’s very poorly planned estate and his equally incompetent estate attorney plus a very large unpaid corporate contract that eluded the collection agency, I decided to re-enter the “traditional” job market.

While I didn’t expect a new job to spontaneously appear, I did enter the job market with what I thought was a well-armed arsenal of benefits to a potential employer:

  • As a scholar-practitioner, I was not confined to a particular industry.
  • I had a successful work history with clients so I could spot trends and offer viable solutions.
  • I had a solid educational and research background, as well as a proprietary theoretical model that had been achieving international interest in the area of workplace burnout.
  • I had also grown a viable network.
  • So, I knew that I could benefit employers in a variety of capacities – either on a contract, part-time, or even full-time basis.

So I launched my job search – and was immediately aware that what I thought were “benefits” were actually viewed as negatives by recruiters and potential employers.

Corporations viewed me as too “academic,” while universities viewed me as too “corporate.”  Huh?  Wouldn’t this combination be a valuable benefit?  Instead of operating in a corporate realm based on assumptions or limited understanding based on prior roles, wouldn’t an ability to thoroughly research a problem in order to provide the best solutions be more valuable than blindly applying “best practices?”

And when it came to universities, my successful history in providing application-based learning experiences for students was overlooked.  While “theory” is important to orient practitioners to a situation, it takes human curiosity, knowledge, and wisdom to select the appropriate model and then apply it to achieve the desired results.  Also, I teach BUSINESS – which is a down and dirty, practical field focused on achieving results.

One experienced high-level colleague working in human resources even told me that my Ph.D. would be viewed as a negative factor by recruiters and hiring managers.  The reason?  Despite the use of technology to find new employees, recruiting biases still exist.

  • “Oh, you’ve got a Ph.D.? You’re going to be tough to manage.”  In other words, my education and critical thinking make me less inclined to blindly follow a manager’s demands – especially if it isn’t necessarily the best course of action for the business.
  • “Oh, you’ve got a Ph.D.? You’re going to want too much money.”  What exactly is considered to be “too much money” – especially when compensation hasn’t even been discussed?  This reflects an ill-informed assumption that all university professors are very highly paid (often for very little work) –trust me, they’re not.

But what about jobs in academia?  Universities are obsessed with the accreditation of the university from which I obtained my Ph.D.  AACSB, ACBSP, and IACBE were acronyms that I began to hate.  Basically AACSB accreditation means that the educational institution focuses on research; IACBE focuses on teaching excellences; ACBSP focuses on both research and teaching.

One department manager at an AACSB-accredited school of business actually told me that my 15 years of teaching experience were not even considered in the hiring process – there wasn’t even a column in the Excel spreadsheet for candidates’ prior teaching!  The primary criteria for an interview rested on the candidate’s alma mater’s accreditation.

NOT the quality of my research.  NOT the advancements that it made in the field.  NOT my proven ability to inspire students.  It all came down to the accreditation of the university – which means the hiring process had nothing to do with MY credentials!

Similarly, corporations expressed concern that (although most of my corporate clients had been large, multinational organizations) I hadn’t been “employed” by a large corporation.  Despite the complaints of companies that they are trying to build more agile, innovative, and entrepreneurial work teams, my years of entrepreneurial experience were overlooked simply because I hadn’t been employed by large company.

Wouldn’t it make sense that it takes someone with a history of entrepreneurial success to build entrepreneurship into the culture of the organization?  Nope.

So What Does All This Mean? 

I’ve been a career coach for over 20 years and have had great success in helping job candidates navigate the muddy waters of a job search.  I also hold two senior level professional certifications in human resources, so I’m well aware of the goals of recruiting highly qualified candidates.

What my foray into the job search jungle has shown me
is that the recruiting process is deeply flawed.
(Talk about an understatement, huh?)

Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) used to screen, evaluate, and score resumes are the bane of job candidates’ efforts to find a job.  They are often so poorly programmed that the auto-population of the online application with the content of the uploaded resume becomes an unintelligible mish-mash of words.

How bad is it?  One ATS populated my name on the application as…PROFESSIONAL.  Huh?!  My name was top and center on the resume  – where did it find “PROFESSIONAL” and decide to use that as my name on the application?

Additionally, ATS cannot “understand” job candidates who have a dual-career path.  In other words, if you have multiple jobs covering the same period of time (such as adjunct faculty roles in addition to running my training and consulting business), the system is unable to recognize that you worked for more than one employer at the same time.

Confused, the ATS throws all the data together in ways that make it absolutely unintelligible.

This will be particularly problematic as companies increasingly are resorting to contract workers (rather than employees) to do the work that is needed.  And, in today’s environment where “job security” is often non-existent, an increasing number of workers are doing side-gigs or hustles to offset potential job loss.  Or to simply pay the bills.

If you’ve worked at a university or in higher education, the ATS seems to be programmed to search for the terms “college” or “university” and auto-populate it into the “Education” section of the application.  I taught at a community college, but never attended – yet this community college was the first item listed under Education!  Oh, and the degree was populated with the first few words of my duties as an adjunct faculty member at the college (which made absolutely no sense).

Once you have amassed significant work experience, it is very common to format your resume using a hybrid or functional structure.  Adding a Summary of Qualifications at the top of your resume highlights your accomplishments and benefits to the employer.  This section also frames your career to make it easier to understand and helps brand your unique selling proposition (U.S.P.).

However, ATS are confused by this format – seemingly spitting out random words from the Summary of Qualifications into nonsensical entries within the online application.  So job candidates lose the power of this executive summary to position themselves in the eyes of the recruiter or hiring manager.

While ATS are more efficient in terms of
the amount of time required to scan a candidate’s resume,
I strongly doubt their ability to more effectively
scan the candidate’s work experience in relation to the job opening.

The ATS is the employer’s gatekeeper – and NO human eyes will ever see your resume unless the ATS ranks it with an acceptable compatibility score.

For example, I’ve taught numerous sections of undergraduate human resources classes; I’ve also taught most (if not all) of the modules in the preparation program for HRCI and SHRM human resource certification exams.  Yet I received know the standard “after careful review of your qualifications, we’ve decided to go with other candidates” email in response to my online application to teach an online undergraduate HR class as an adjunct faculty member.  Huh?

After several of these “thanks, but no thanks” emails, I decided to use my research skills to figure out what was going on.  I knew that employers were complaining that they couldn’t “find” qualified job applicants – and that very well-qualified job seekers were complaining that they couldn’t seem to get an interview after applying online.  Something was a lose-lose situation.

So, What Is the Solution?  

The Take-Away About Online Resumes:  It’s no longer enough to have one well-crafted resume focused on marketing you as someone who can “hit the ground running” in performing the duties and responsibilities of the posted job.

While we all know that key words are critical to pass the ATS resume screen, I have also discovered these insights and hacks:

  • Don’t use a hybrid or functional format. Remove the Summary of Qualifications and add them to specific jobs.  Quite frankly, if you’ve used these skills in multiple situations, then add them to each employment experience.  Repetition might be able to reinforce to the ATS that you possess these skills and increase your “match” score for the job.
  • You may need to “dumb down” your resume. This was painful for me.  After all, we’ve worked our tails off to build our work experiences and history of successful accomplishments – it intuitively doesn’t make sense to remove them from the resume.  However, all these competencies and accomplishments might be viewed as “over-qualified” (I hate that term!) for the position – maybe not by the ATS, but very possibly by the human recruiter who may eventually see your resume and make erroneous assumptions about you.
  • The resume you use to apply online should be formatted for artificial intelligence. Nope, it’s not going to look “pretty” – in fact, it will probably look downright ugly!  Don’t use horizontal lines (it can screw up the ATS).  Put everything flush to the left margin (ATS “read” resumes top-to-bottom- not left-to-right).  Don’t add color (ATS get confused).  Don’t use columns (ATS will auto-populate the online job application with a series of mumbo-jumbo – the second column of items will be moved as garbage after the last entry in your resume).
  • You now need two resumes: one to be scanned by ATS and one to be read by humans.  Networking is still a critical tool to find a job.  The ATS resume will not provide a good first impression to a human reader, so you also need a “pretty” resume that will pique a person’s interest.  But updating that “pretty” resume into an online application will be misinterpreted by the ATS scan and lead to a low compatibility score.  The content should be the same on both resumes, but it’s HOW it’s arranged that is different.  Form follows function.
  • Consider applying for jobs via your LinkedIn profile. For some reason, ATS auto-populate LinkedIn information more easily into the online job application.

By the way, it used to be that after uploading your resume to the ATS, you didn’t have the opportunity to make corrections to the online job application.  Thankfully, this has changed in some online application sites.  But don’t assume that your resume will upload correctly!  Take the time to check the imported data to make sure that what the ATS “sees” on the application is intelligible.  And make note of trends as to where your experiences “land” in the auto-populated online application – then make changes to the resume to facilitate easier uploading in the future.

Advice to the Players

It is imperative that companies find quality employees who will help the organization achieve its strategic objectives.  It is likewise imperative that high quality workers are able to find work that motivates them in an organizational environment that is a good cultural fit.

In other words, companies and workers need each other to succeed.

To Employers:  Reconsider what you really need to staff a job.  An unbroken employment history in a specific job within a specific industry may appear to be an indicator of success.  But not only is such a candidate difficult to find, it can also restrict the new ideas that a candidate with a slightly different professional background can bring to the table.  Hire not just for the job as it is today, but also as it will evolve in the future.

While many organizations use assessments to ensure that candidates have the requisite competencies for the job, the candidate’s resume has to pass the ATS screen in order to move forward in the process.  Recruiters vary in their reliance on ATS scoring of resumes:  some only look at the top 3 “matches,” while other peruse many the resumes overall.  “Garbage in, garbage out” is an axiom in technology:  make sure that what you have programmed the ATS to search for in applicant resumes relates to the actual performance of the job.  Look not just at the job description, but also the job specifications and competencies of current high performers in this role.

Finally, corporate should quit relying on the qualities of a candidate’s previous employer and begin to look at the candidate’s actual accomplishments. Similarly, universities need to move beyond a candidate’s alma mater’s accreditation and focus instead on their contributions to expand the knowledge base in their field.

To Job Candidates:  The modern job search has changed dramatically – and the old tools used to find a job must be modified in order to address the new recruiting technology.  Having two resumes is a pain in the neck, but it may be the only way to get the ATS to recognize that yes, you are a viable candidate for the job.  Email your “pretty” resume to the recruiter when scheduling the interview – and bring a copy of this resume with you in face-to-face meetings.  Perhaps most importantly, harness your network in order to get whose “warm” referrals to a human being who has the power to forward your resume to the appropriate decision-maker.

You should be applying for at least one job every day – if there is a connection between the duties and responsibilities of the job to your employment history, then apply.  Remember:  75% of online applications are automatically rejected by the ATS (pretty disheartening statistic), so you need to have more opportunities in the pipeline in order to land an interview that can lead to a new job.

Finally, never apologize for your work experience and education!  If an employer expresses concerns, then take this as an early warning sign that it will probably NOT be a good job fit anyway.

The new recruiting and hiring landscape seems to be the perfect storm that often leads to employers and job candidates passing each other like ships in the night – never making any meaningful contact that could benefit them both.  But it IS the new reality.  Employers might be slow in making the necessary changes to its ATS, so job seekers need to work within the existing system.  Form follows function.

You can increase your chances for an interview by initially bypassing the ATS.  But remember:  there is nearly a 100% certainty that you will need to apply online for the job (even if your resume has been presented to a real human being).  Don’t be stuck in the past – modify your job search approach so that it addresses the very real challenges associated with the new recruiting technology.

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to

How to Promote a Stress-Free Workplace

Last month I was thrilled to be part of an international online summit focusing on burnout in nurses.  Even if you’re not a nurse, the insights from the summit can help you avoid and overcome burnout.  In this 30-minute interview, I discuss the workplace stressors that can lead to burnout.  

Thanks to the generosity of Ashild Tilrem (the event organizer), who has graciously permitted me to share my video interview with you on my blog.  Enjoy!

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to

What To Do When Your Boss Is Unethical

Handcuffs - niu-niu-600592-unsplash

When I was conducting my research that led to the Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B-DOC), I asked my participants to identify what they believed led to their burnout.  I didn’t offer any potential choices relating to what I thought caused burnout.  So, one particular finding left me, well, flabbergasted:

A disturbing 57.1% of my participants believed that their burnout was either caused or exacerbated by their manager’s requests for them to take ILLEGAL OR UNETHICAL ACTIONS.

This was over half of my participants!  An even more disturbing finding was that these requests were more prominent in participants who worked in nonprofit environments (66.7%) compared to those in for-profits (50%).

According to one female non-profit change leader, she felt that she had somehow become involved with “dirty people” because there were multiple requests for her to take illegal or unethical actions.

Another male for-profit change leader was adamant that he would not take the actions requested of him by his manager, stating, “I’m not going to do it.  I won’t.  It goes against everything I believe in.”  His manager’s response was simply, “You have to.”

What do you do when your boss asks – or even demands – that you take actions that you believe are unethical or know are illegal?  Sadly, this appears to be a growing challenge for the modern worker.

Some Reasons for Unethical Requests

Organizations are beginning to demand a higher level of ethics in their employees’ conduct.  Despite demanding that all employees read and sign the organization’s corporate ethics and compliance policy, the projected moral and legal commitments may not materialize.

The sad reality is that corporate ethics have been under increasing scrutiny as a result of a hypercompetitive marketplace.  When the competition is significant (even staggering), company leaders may resort to making business decisions that require employees to take actions that may not necessarily be illegal, but can be perceived as unethical.

While some of these decisions have led to public scandal and disgrace (such as Enron), it appears that far too many companies are “flying under the radar” of conventional ethics, yet still achieving success.  For example, companies may use misleading product information or unfair competition practices in order to gain market share.  Corporate financial reports may be manipulated to cast a better light on their financials.

Any and all of these unethical decisions are made by employees.

In today’s űber competitive marketplace, some managers believe that a strong commitment to ethical behavior unfairly limits their ability to create desired organizational results.  So, they rationalize the underlying ethos of their decisions and demand that their subordinates do the same.

In other words, organizational demands can create a powerful environment in which ethical people behave unethically

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review noted that, although there has been progress in building more ethical enterprises, 41% of surveyed workers reported seeing ethical misconduct in their workplaces within the previous 12 months.

The ways in which unethical behaviors are displayed in the workplace vary.  In my research, participants characterized their managers’ behaviors as unethical when there was constant swearing, inappropriate comments, yelling, screaming, and even harassment.  Such poor communication was a precursor to burnout in 64.3% of cases.  This lack of values-based, ethical management practices led to treatment of employees that bordered on being inhumane.

Put another way, burned out employees were often the victims of unethical bullying by managers.

Bullying is defined as “any unwanted behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated, degraded, humiliated or offended.”  According to ACAS (a nonprofit in the U.K.), bullying and harassment are similar unethical workplace behaviors which may or may not be readily apparent in the workplace.

Even though they are similar, “harassment” under U.S. law has special meaning and protections that are not afforded to bullying.  According to research conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute, most bullying is not accompanied by illegal harassment – meaning that:

80% of bullying provides NO legal recourse for its victims. 

Although there are currently no laws against bullying in the U.S., it is gratifying that 30 states and 2 territories have introduced anti-bullying legislation in The Healthy Workplace Bill.

The importance of anti-bullying law is reinforced due to the rise in such behavior across organizational hierarchies.  In 2018, Forbes magazine reported that nearly 75% of employees have been affected by workplace bullying.  Whether the bullying is initiated by a supervisor or a coworker, it is always considered to be a type of power struggle between the parties.

NOTE:  Although the participants in my research did not specifically cite “bullying” as a cause of their burnout, bullies tend to be poor leaders and withhold resources.  This combination of poor leadership and a lack of necessary organizational resources to do the job was cited by 92.9% of my participants.  Additionally, the lack of organizational caring (which are often displayed in the tactics by used by bullying managers) contributed to burnout in 85.7% overall.

How to Respond to Unethical Requests

Whether these managerial requests are the result of a culture that tolerates such behavior or reflect a management personality that uses power (or bullying) to pressure workers to behave unethically, the individual must still deal with the effects of these requests.

A recent New York Times article gave the benefit of the doubt to the manager:  perhaps your boss made the unethical request unwittingly.  Similarly, a article warned of the importance in making sure that you fully understand the situation surrounding your boss’s unethical request.

However, once such a request has been made, the quandary for many workers lies in the potential ramifications of complying:

  • Will you be held complicit and liable if the unethical request is discovered?
  • Will you face retaliation if you report the unethical request to your boss’s boss or HR?
  • If you comply, will subsequent requests require even greater ethical challenges?
  • Finally, can you continue to work in an environment in which you must act in a way that undermines your ethics and values – even if you are dependent upon your paycheck?

These fears of potential retaliation, demotion, or job loss may be justified.  In a National Business Ethics survey conducted by the Ethics and Compliance Initiative in 2016, 53% of U.S. workers who reported misconduct were retaliated against!

So, what can you do when your boss asks you to act in a way that you believe is unethical?

  • Ask questions. One of the most simple ways to avoid unethical behaviors is to understand the true nature of the request.  Often times an unethical request may simply be an expedient way of solving a problem (in other words, your boss was “too busy” to consider ethical issues).  Before reacting strongly and emotionally, ask your manager to repeat the request so that you can clarify what he or she is specifically asking you to do – then paraphrase this understanding back to him or her.
  • Trust your gut. If after fully understanding what your manager is requesting and you intuitively know that the act is unethical, explain to your boss why you feel uncomfortable following the directive.
  • Focus on creating a more ethical approach to solve the problem. If “cutting corners” to expedite an activity feels unethical to you, mutually brainstorm other ways that your boss can still achieve the desired outcomes and you can feel comfortable with the desired actions.  If an initial conversation doesn’t work, then put your ideas into an email – you’ll then have a record as to why you are not complying with a request to do something that you believe is unethical.
  • Don’t tolerate being bullied into doing something unethical. If you boss insists that you perform an unethical task, he or she may use pressure, coercion, or intimidation to force you to comply.  DON’T!  Many requests that start out as unethical may ultimately lead to legal consequences.

Some Reasons for Illegal Requests

Quite frankly, there are none.

Managers who knowingly or unwittingly ask their subordinates to engage in activities that are illegal will still be held liable for the consequences – as you will be, too, since you complied with the illegal request.

The challenge is how to protect yourself in the event of a lawsuit stemming from these illegal actions.

How to Respond to Illegal Requests

The good news is that you may have legal claims against your employer if you suffer retaliation for refusing to take an illegal action at work or if you were a whistleblower who reported the illegal activity.  In addition to laws protecting whistleblowers (always check with an attorney!), there may be grounds for wrongful termination pursuant to relevant state laws.

NOTE:  Don’t assume your legal standing –
always check with an attorney experienced in employment law!

If you have been asked to take illegal action, this is a time when you MUST take a stand and refuse.  As previously mentioned, taking the illegal action even if you disagree with it is NOT an adequate defense in a lawsuit.

To protect yourself, consider the following ideas:

  • Escalate your concerns. Talk to your boss’s manager in an effort to resolve the problem.  Speak to someone in your company’s HR department – ideally a manager who has the authority to act upon this information.  Ask your company’s compliance manager for advice as to how to proceed.
  • Be prepared that your boss may retaliate against you. No, it isn’t right.  No, it isn’t ethical.  And, yes, it may be illegal.  But sadly retaliation is all too common.
  • Be prepared that your employer may do nothing in response to your questions or complaints. This is a cultural issue – and an organizational culture that supports unethical or illegal behaviors will do little to assist an employee who refuses to comply.
  • Be prepared to address coworkers’ comments. Although you should ideally keep the confidentiality of your boss’s request to engage in illegal conduct, the office grapevine can still find out.  Once again, this is a cultural issue:  you might be viewed as either a hero for refusing to act illegally or you might be viewed as a “snitch” who doesn’t fit with the corporate culture.
  • Make sure your resume is ready in case you need to find a new job. As previously mentioned, many employees are retaliated against when they fail to comply with a manager’s request – even if it is unethical or illegal.  The question is:  do you want to stay in a culture that advocates unethical or illegal behavior AND are you prepared for the legal consequences of being complicit?

An unethical boss is the bane of an ethical employee’s existence plus it can be an environmental factor that leads to the psychological, emotional, and physical űber stress of burnout.

If you’re currently employed at the company, you have some important decisions to make:  Is the unethical or illegal request a one-time issue OR is it an indication of the corporate culture?  If you stay with your employer, can you handle the emotional strain of staying in an organization whose values do not align with your own?  And, finally, is the risk of potential civil or criminal charges against you due to your complicity worth it?

Remember:  Unethical or illegal management requests can not only place you into potential legal jeopardy, but can also cause you to burn out!

To thank you for reading my blog and to help you in deciding if you should stay or leave a stressful employment situation, please check out my newly updated eCourse, Job Burnout:  When to Stay, When to Go, What to Do.  In this on-demand eCourse, you’ll discover three critical questions to help you decide.  (NOTE:  Although this is an intensive 6 module course, it is available on-demand so that you can work on it at your own pace – plus you have LIFETIME access!)

SPECIAL GIFT:  If you use discount code ANW2W15, you can save $15.00 off this course.

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to

The Truth About Workplace Burnout

PODCAST - Better Achiever Image

I’m so pleased to share my recent interview on Carol Miltersteiner’s Dutch podcast, The Better Achiever!

In this 56-minute interview, I shared my own experience with burnout and how it has shaped my research and practice – plus I provided some insights into workplace stressors that lead to burnout.

You can also listen to this podcast on Spotify  or SoundCloud.

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to

Workplace Compassion: What It Is, Why It’s Missing, and How It Contributes to Organizational Success

Compassion - Giving a hand up to another

Should we expect to find compassion in our workplaces – or should we check our emotions at the door in order to be more productive at work?   Is workplace compassion a “nice to have” bonus at work – or is it an organizational imperative for innovation and profitability?  According to recent research, compassion may be the key to innovation, learning, and adaptability in a constantly changing world.

Compassion:  What It Is (and Isn’t)

Compassion is defined as not only our caring response to another person’s suffering, but also to our attempts to help alleviate that suffering.  It is a hard-wired trait in humans – but one that many people feel is lacking in not only our personal relationships, but at work as well.

Workplace compassion is found in the interactions between employees.  It’s displayed in our willingness to help one another.  To understand that there might be reasons for a sudden change in performance.  To recognize that employees are human beings with lives outside of work.

In other words, compassion – whether it is in our personal or professional lives – is the resulting emotion of being conscious of another’s suffering or distress AND being willing to help them alleviate it.

Compassion is, therefore, not just a feeling but also an action.

And, according to many researchers, compassion can be learned.

Why Compassion Is Missing in Most Workplaces

In general, there are three causes that deter compassion in the workplace:

  1. The belief that professional and personal lives should be kept separate.
  2. The fear of appearing vulnerable and weak.
  3. The confusion surrounding how to offer support.

There is a long-held belief that emotions should be “left at the door” when we enter the workplace.  Whatever is going on in our personal lives should be compartmentalized in order to be “dealt with” when we leave work.

That may have worked when most of us worked a standard 40-hour work week and were essentially unreachable outside the office or work site.  But all that changed with the onset of technology.

While technology has been a great boon to many businesses and its workers, it has come with a price:  the 24/7 eLeash.  Today we are constantly accessible at any time of the day or night by email, text messaging, or even the “old-fashioned” phone call.  Workers often are unable to resist the technological call even if they are on vacation or celebrating a holiday with their families; some workers will “check in” even if they are hospitalized (but still conscious).

Because compassion requires the conscious acknowledgement of another person’s pain or suffering, it requires an emotional vulnerability that many workers are afraid to display in professional situations.

But this lack of compassion has deleterious consequences.  The employee who is attempting to balance a heavy workload with a family health crisis might be afraid to ask for help due to fears of being labeled as someone who “can’t handle” the demands of the job.  The resulting high stress levels negatively affect not only their performance, but also their emotional well-being and physical health.

Similarly, the manager who has excelled throughout his career may fear being labeled as “weak” if he responds compassionately (rather than autocratically or “by the book”) to a coworker’s need for some scheduling flexibility due to child demands from a recent divorce.  After all, wouldn’t this “softness” be transmitted through the office grapevine – with the result that he will be “taken advantage of” in the future?

If employees fear asking for some organizational help (or a little “slack”) when they are experiencing major challenges or changes, then they are more likely to become disengaged, unproductive, and burned out.

While the lack of workplace compassion is most frequently viewed as occurring between managers and their subordinates, it is also lacking in the interactions between colleagues and peers.

If the workplace culture is characterized by an obsessive compulsion to “win” and an aversion to “loss,” then employees tend to view providing any kind of compassionate assistance to their coworkers as an action that could undermine their personal ability to succeed.  In such an environment, even authentic offers to help may be viewed with suspicion:  what do they really want in exchange for this help?

Regardless of their formal structure of the workplace relationship, many people are uncomfortable when they are faced with someone who is hurting, in pain, or in desperate need.  How to offer support becomes a tricky undertaking:  would my offer to help make them feel that they are somehow inferior or then feel “bad” about themselves?

How Workplace Compassion Contributes to Organizational Success   

Displaying compassion to our fellow workers, subordinates, and managers requires an acceptance of our innate humanity.  In other words, compassion brings the “human” back into the workplace.

But compassion is not just a “feel good” workplace characteristic.  According to Worline and Dutton (2017), “compassion matters for competitive advantage.”

In an age in which innovation, collaboration, client customization, and adaptability are critical to organizational sustainability, there is an urgent demand for “bigger, better, and faster” – regardless of the goals’ reasonableness or achievability.  As burnout runs rampant in many organizations and employees choose to leave their employers (rather than continuously strive toward the achievement of these unreasonable demands), organizations must rethink their attitudes toward urgency.

Urgency was first touted as a way to create an adrenaline rush in employees so that they could work tirelessly toward the completion of tasks that were critical to organizational success.  But urgency and adrenaline are only healthy and sustainable in short doses; prolonged periods of urgent action that are not balanced with periods of respite and reward create not only burnout, but also emotional and physical health problem.

In other words, if everything is urgent…then nothing really is.

By instead rethinking organizational policies and processes in terms of their level of compassion toward workers, companies can reap the benefits of an engaged, energized, and loyal workforce.

I’m not kidding:  adding compassion as a criteria for policies and procedures has measurable benefits:

  • In a study by Jonathan Haidt of New York University, leaders who interacted with their subordinates in ways that were perceived as fair and self-sacrificing were rewarded with employees who were more loyal, committed, and collaborative in working to find solutions to problems.
  • Fowler and Christakis found that generous, compassionate, and kind actions created a chain reaction in workplaces – thus creating a cultural change toward compassion.
  • In a 2012 study published in BMC Public Health, compassionate acts built bonds between workers – which led to decreased stress levels and greater productivity.

Workplace compassion creates a culture of cooperation and trust.  Rather than a culture of competition, organizational cultures that exhibit and support compassion tend to have lower health care utilization rates, greater employee engagement, less turnover, and a culture of trust that supports learning and innovation.  (I told you I wasn’t kidding.)

5 Tips to Building Workplace Compassion

While I firmly believe that every employee desires to be treated compassionately at work, I also recognize that there are many hurdles to building a culture of compassion.

Based on my research, I have identified five simple ways that organizational leaders and individual employees can approach their work with a sense of compassion:

Tip #1:  Don’t respond based on implicit assumptions.  Bias is well-researched in the protected classes (e.g., gender, race, religion, etc.), but is infrequently acknowledged in the areas of human behavior.  While everyone has implicit biases through which we appraise the behaviors of others, it is important to step outside of these biases in order to see another’s perspective of the challenging situation.

Tip #2:  Be present and authentic.  Compassion should be given freely.  This is accomplished by becoming present in the moment – taking the time to see and listen to the people with whom you are engaged.  In other words, get out of your head and open your heart.

Tip #3:  Encourage employee conversations about non-work activities.  When employees are encouraged to socialize with one another, it provides greater insights into their motivations, fears, and aspirations.  When sharing such information, it can build trust and encourage a greater proclivity to help and support each other.  (NOTE:  Be patient with such sharing activities and NEVER force someone to share more than what they are comfortable with.)

Tip #4:  Create organizational initiatives that encourage employees helping each other.  Organizations that have a strong sense of community involvement may have an advantage in building a compassionate, collaborative culture – but don’t focus exclusively outside the organization.  Perhaps create an initiative that allows employees to provide assistance to other employees who might be in need.  For example, a fund which allows workers to donate their unused time off or make a financial donation to help a coworker.

Tip #5:  Recognize when employees act compassionately and help each other.  Formal recognition (e.g., awards, events) as well as informal “thank you’s” or even the offer to get an overworked colleague a much-needed cup of coffee are powerful ways to reinforce the importance that an organization places on compassionate activities in the workplace.

We humans are wired to empathize – which is an important aspect of compassion.  We’re wired to experience a visceral, emotional response to another’s suffering.  But compassion is more than empathy:  it is also the active response to help alleviate that suffering.

Additionally, compassionate action not only helps someone else who is in need but also makes us feel better and more hopeful.  Acting compassionately is a win-win.

So, even though pain may be an inevitable part of life, our feelings of suffering are not.  Compassion is what makes us human – and it’s a necessity in all of our lives.  Since we spend the majority of our time at work, we need compassion in our daily existence.  And it is through acts of compassion that companies can embrace the humanity of its workforce and harness the power of its only nondupulicatable competitive advantage:  its human resources.

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to